Tagged: writing

Why do you write? The impulse inwards and the impulse outwards

why do you write

Today I took a Creative Writing workshop at the LSE Space For Thought Literary Festival, which I’d titled Why Do You Write? And Can Knowing That Even Help? It will soon be available as a podcast. It was good fun to run – and I tried out a couple of new writing exercises, but one thing I did that is quite standard fare is I asked the students to jot down, for themselves, their personal reasons for writing.

Now, if you’re a writer, and you feel like exploring this question, perhaps you’d take two minutes to jot down a few possible answers before reading on. That’s what I asked students to do in the workshop, and I think it’s worth doing blind, as it were, for reasons that will become clear.

So, before reading on, grab a pen and jot down six reasons why you write.

Or, you know, ignore that, roll your eyes, and read on.

One thing I’d noticed, in making my own personal list in preparation for the session, was the reasons divided reasonably easily into two categories: inward-oriented impulses, and those that turned outwards.

So, when I asked students to share their reasons with the room at large, and I wrote them up on the whiteboard, I divided them into two columns as I went. Here’s what they came up with – some of it compressed and paraphrased by me, for which I apologise.

  • Because I can
  • Communicate
  • Create
  • Entertain
Enjoyment
  • Reciprocate  – give back something for all the reading pleasure I’ve had
  • To make sense of things
  • Share
  • To keep my head from exploding
  • Protest
  • Compulsion
  • Reach an audience
  • Reflect on things
  • Money!
  • Explore myself and my self-identity
  • Make people laugh and cry
  • Explore my imagination
  • Capture moments
  • Overcome the fear of writing
  • Therapeutic reasons

 

And this was the list I then showed, that I’d come up with. (Some of it tongue-in-cheek)

  • Replicate the joy and intensity of reading
  • Get rich and famous
  • Understand something about yourself
  • Express or share something about yourself
  • Understand something about the world
  • Express or share something about the world
  • Emulate your favourite writer
  • Impose your ideas on others
  • The sheer thrill of creation
  • Contribute to the culture, or the conversation, as you see it
  • Entertain yourself
  • Impress others / make yourself seem more interesting / get laid

As you can see, many of the terms and reasons pop up in both lists, in some form or other. I’d pretty much decided on giving an equal balance between the two impulses, once I’d decided on that perhaps overly simplistic division, but I was interested to see that the students’ list was significantly longer than the outward one, while mine, if anything, erred towards the outward or external.

I say ‘simplistic’, but I do think there is a fundamental split here. We all of us write both for ourselves and for others, to some extent, but if you made a personal list perhaps you’d look at it now and ask yourself: which column do most of your reasons sit in? Are you a ‘for yourself’ writer, or a ‘for others’?

Someone whose answers sat squarely in the right hand column might be at risk of producing meretricious, programmatic, target-oriented, basically uninteresting writing, because they’re so fixated on the effect of their writing that they are blind to the workings of their own writing personality. But someone whose answers stick to the left-hand column might be producing work which doesn’t take that crucial step of reaching out and engaging with the world, which lacks the ambition and ego needed to make writing truly crucial to the reader.

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Gone in the blink of an eye: Elizabeth Bowen’s contingent realism

I’m reading Elizabeth Bowen for the first time and finding it a slow-going but exhilarating experience – perhaps the closest comparison, in terms of necessary application to the page, is Javier Marías, someone else who won’t be rushed, whose paragraphs flow like dark syrup, not clear water.

One of the things that has most struck me – and that is very different from Marías – is the utter contingency of Bowen’s descriptions. Things are always shown in the light of the moment, not with any definiteness; so much so that you’d almost think that, were you to glance away from the page, and back again, the words on it would have changed, with the movement of a cloud across the sun, or the bough of a tree across a window.

As such, she is working very much against received ideas of ‘realism’ in prose writing, against what Henry James called “solidity of specification”. There is no solidity here; everything is always on the point of dissolution – and this sense of unreality is surely no accident; Bowen extends it to her characters:

The sun had been going down while tea had been going on, its chemically yellowing light intensifying the boundary trees. Reflections, cast across the lawn into the lounge, gave the glossy thinness of celluloid to indoor shadow. Stella pressed her thumb against the edge of the table to assure herself this was a moment she was living through – as in the moment before a faint she seemed to be looking at everything down a darkening telescope. Having brought the scene back again into focus by staring at window-reflections in the glaze of the teapot, she dared look again at Robert, seated across the table, between his nephew and niece.

Obviously the syntax is a brake on understanding; Bowen seems fusty and old-fashioned in her sentences, leaping back over Virginia Woolf towards the likes of James, even when what is being broached in those sentences – the sheer ephemerality of self-consciousness – is as modern as anything by Woolf. Stella (the main character of The Heat of the Day) has to steady herself by looking at the reflections of the windows caught in the glaze of the teapot before she can dare to look at her lover. Why ‘dare’? Well, because she’s scared that when she looks for him, where he was sitting only a moment before, he will have disappeared, sparked out of existence. Continue reading

Vincent justifies his approach to memoir writing

Let me put it this way. I’m only inventing what I can positively recall. If it is something I remember, then I write it down. I don’t write it unless I can definitely remember it. But once I start to write it down, I must needs invent it, in terms of how it happened. If I write it down, it happened, but not necessarily how I write it. What I write down didn’t happen, but it didn’t happen less than all the things I don’t write down, which didn’t happen at all.