The two great essayists of the modern age—George Orwell and Joan Didion—wrote essays called “Why I Write,” which I’m featuring up front in my class on The Art of the Essay at SUNY New Paltz. Separated by thirty years (1946, 1976), Orwell and Didion write from different perspectives of class, gender, nationality, and historical circumstance, but their attitudes toward writing share enough in common to reward putting them into dialogue.
Since this is my first blog post, I’m inclined to think aloud about why I write, too: why I write in my capacity as an academic and teacher, and why I write—or why I propose to write—on this platform, to an audience of…well, who?
Writing in the aftermath of the Second World War, Orwell attributes being a political writer—“a sort of pamphleteer”—to living in a period of tumult and revolution. All writers, he contends, find their subject in the age in which they live. Orwell, who observed (and participated in) the evils of British imperialism before witnessing the rise of Fascism in Europe, couldn’t have avoided responding to the conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century—in essays, long-form literary nonfiction, and novels.
Didion’s oft-noted coolness represents a tonal shift from the polemical Orwell, but she’s no less a political writer: how could she be otherwise, positioned as she is in the midst of the International Cold War and American counterculture? For Didion, cool isn’t a version of detachment: she and her writings are embedded in the conditions in which she lived and worked. We read Didion, perhaps more than we do Orwell, for the aesthetic innovation of her work; like Orwell, we can also look to her novels and essays as records of the personal and political turmoil of the period she documented, and continues to document.
What’s striking to me about Orwell’s and Didion’s responses to the implied question—why write?—is how forthcoming they are about the narcissism that drives them. Orwell lists “sheer egoism” at the top of his list of four great motives for writing: “Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.” Didion is even more transparent in her self-assessment:
I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this:
“In many ways,” Didion continues, “the act of writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act.”
How much of this (hostile? aggressive?) compulsion to say I, to impose myself, to command your attention and encourage you to see things my way, motivates my impulse to write? Do I write out of egoism, as Orwell admits he does (and claims that all writers necessarily must)?
And if, as Orwell says, “serious writers [. . .] are on the whole more vain and self-centred than journalists,” what about academics?
These essayists’ descriptions of the egoism that motivates writing ring true to me as an early career academic: there’s an “I” implicit in everything I write, not least because of the publish or perish culture that characterises our field. I write because of the professional profits that accompany writing. For obvious reasons (job security, prestige) my personal and professional ambitions can’t be separated.
I write because I’m in at least partial agreement with Dr. Johnson when he says “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
Needless to say, though, there are easier ways to make a living (I agree with Hemingway, too, when he says “there’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed”). Can hubris sustain a writing life? An approach to writing as a discipline?
In “On Keeping a Notebook,” Didion describes writers as “anxious malcontents” and “resistant rearrangers of things.” She might also be describing academics, even the most careerist among whom write (I suspect) because they’re dissatisfied with things as they are. Whether we write to correct the prevailing understanding of a period, text, or cultural phenomenon, or because we want our readers to pay attention to something (or someone) formerly overlooked, we do tend to be malcontents and rearrangers of ideas, if not exactly of things.
As an academic, I write to close the gap between how it is and how it ought to be. But what is “it”?
In the weeks and months to come, I anticipate the it in question will come into focus; I also suspect that "it" will multiply.
I write, here and elsewhere, because writing begets more writing.