Why do I write?

Friday, January 17, 2014
Lee Kofman

headshot of Lee Kofman
Lee Kofman

“Why do I write?” is a question I have asked myself more than once, particularly when I receive publishers’ rejections, or hear about some friend’s obscene corporate salary, or when I am paralyzed by fear before starting a new project, or lose faith in the work-in-progress I’ve been slaving over for some years, or when my pile of research notes reaches the height of Mount Everest – in absolute disproportion to the manuscript’s word count. In short, I often question my choice of dedicating my life to writing.

Once, in my early twenties, following the publication of my first novel, which sold poorly and went critically unnoticed, I even enrolled into my first writing class with the deadly serious hope that the teacher would tell me I lacked talent, so that I could quit writing. Instead, though, the teacher published two of my short stories in a major literary journal she edited. Thus, rather than quitting, I ended up writing my second book – yes, a collection of short stories. Still, since then I’ve had many more lows, including a lengthy period of writer’s block. This is why I sometimes say, pretending it’s a joke, that I’d have preferred to have become a chef. Cooking gives me much pleasure and despite the evidence of grumpy chefs all around, I think for me this would be a happier occupation than being a writer. After all, I’ve never heard of “chef’s block”. Nevertheless, I am – like most writers – compelled to write.

But why?

Harlan Ellison, the American speculative fiction author, also tries to understand the writing compulsion and this is what he says:

"Writing is the hardest work in the world. I have been a bricklayer and a truck driver, and I tell you… that writing is harder. Lonelier. And nobler and more enriching."

I can relate to his first argument. I’ve never been a truck driver or a bricklayer, but I worked as a social worker and trust me – writing is even more difficult than that. But then, being a fire(wo)man is also potentially noble and enriching. So what is it about writing that turns many otherwise sane people into pathological masochists?

This is how Hazel Rowley, the renowned Australian biographer, explains this:

"There are ups and there are downs, but… being a writer is an enormous privilege. Your life and work blur into one. Whatever you do, you can tell yourself it’s experience, and that’s what a writer needs most."

Rowley’s view resonates with me. In my life, too, ordinary actions often turn into adventures, because I write. A tram ride becomes an opportunity to observe strangers and take notes to use in my work. The pleasure of watching films is amplified by my knowledge that this activity may contribute to my own art. An argument with my husband is potential dramatic material for my next story. Yet, the other side of this blurring between life and work is that when I am writing something – and I’m almost always writing something – I am never a free person. Novels or essays are forever bugging me, telling me I’m not smart enough to complete them, complaining I don’t spend enough time with them, demanding I solve some structural or moral problem. This goes on and on during most of my waking hours, and sometimes trickles into my dreams.

So why do I write?

In 1946 George Orwell wrote his seminal essay called just that: ‘Why I write’, outlining the reasons people write. According to Orwell, childhood traumas are essential for the writing drive. Indeed, if we look at the biographies of dedicated, and critically successful, writers, unhappy childhoods are the norm (of course, exceptions exist: Iris Murdoch, for example). Writing is a lot about licking your wounds, whether you write a memoir or a fantasy novel about a dragon. After all, dragons hurt too.

After arguing that early trauma is fundamental, Orwell offers four more reasons why we write, stating that these “exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living”. I’m listing these below with short quotes from Orwell:

  1. Sheer egoism: Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death.
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm: Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement.
  3. Historical impulse: Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
  4. Political purpose: Using the word “political” in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction.

All of Orwell’s points ring true for me. Yes, I am vain: I like the status of “being a writer”, including the lifestyle this creates; I love doing all those writerly things writers like complaining about “having to do” – interviews, festival panels, lectures. I write for the beauty of language. I own this historical impulse, particularly where communism, which I lived under as a child, is concerned. I even want to push the world in some direction, one that doesn’t fit with the politically correct mores of our times. But really, Orwell, this is not the end of story. Let me add more reasons. Let me finally strip off.

The main reason I write is because verbal language fails me in all three languages I speak. My tongue is too quick and susceptible to generalisations. My speaking self lacks nuance, it betrays me. I blurt out stupid things, or say stuff that shows me as someone I don’t think I am. Only once I slow myself down, by pinpointing words revolving in my mind onto the paper or computer screen, do I consider the options before choosing a position. Writing is really a slow form of thinking. I contemplate better through writing; it helps me figure out what I really think about the world.

I write in several genres, but whatever I write is usually grounded in my own life. Writing also helps me to process my experiences, particularly the difficult stuff I’ve been through (yes, including an unhappy childhood) or any other events that, for reasons I don’t always understand, have left great impressions on me. Although I’ve never earned much money through my writing, I suspect I’ve saved much that would otherwise have been spent on therapy.

Some studies support what I feel, showing that writing about one’s traumatic experiences is good for mental health. Scientists argue these benefits occur not primarily because of the raw catharsis that the initial writing outpouring can afford, but due to reflective writing, which contributes to cognitive restructuring. Such writing can help reduce dichotomized thinking and notions of pathology, and push people to a more creative and dynamic thinking about their past and present predicaments.

I am not surprised it is my favorite writing stage that is the most therapeutic. During the revision process – when we layer, deepen and restructure our initial drafts, cut excessive emotions and clichés, and look for more precise and original language to describe their experiences – the distance between who we once were and who we are now grows, enabling us to examine our problems more coolly. This is also when writing can bestow upon us a sense of control as we order our chaotic, unpredictable lives into crafted sentences and engaging narratives. In this way I have wrestled with whatever has haunted me – be this my religious upbringing, my relationship with my mother, my lengthy childhood stays in the wilderness of Soviet hospitals, or the dismantling of two romantic relationships I had during my first years in Australia when I was also struggling with adjusting to my new country and language.

But there is a price to pay for exorcising my demons through writing. By reaching self-knowledge, I divorce my life from some sort of mystery. I never liked being overly known, even to myself; this bores me. As Lorca once wrote: ‘only mystery makes us live’. Besides, I write to understand, but, paradoxically, too much understanding can kill the writing drive. If my mysteries are solved and become answerable to banal psychological truths, then how can I keep working? Fortunately, I haven’t run out of anxieties yet; my life keeps generating more writing material.

And why do you write?

About Lee Kofman

Lee Kofman is an Israeli-Australian author of three fiction books (in Hebrew). Her short works in English have been widely published in Australia, the UK, Scotland, Canada and the US, including in Best Australian Stories and Best Australian Essays. Her first book in English, the memoir The Dangerous Bride is due to appear in October 2014 through MUP.