A few Christmases ago I received a thoughtful present from a family member. I unwrapped the slim rectangle to find “Why I Write,” a collection of essays by George Orwell.
I had long since purchased the book on my own and read it, but didn’t reveal that at the time. Instead, I nodded and said “oh thanks” and even felt guilty about having received the redundant present; and then felt more guilty about not letting him know that it was redundant; and then felt even more guilty for what I knew to be a strange and jilted reaction to receiving the gift. I went silent, wanting the attention to move along as quickly as possible to anything and anyone else.
I could have said much more at the time, because the essay the collection is named for, “Why I Write,” has always stuck with me, at least this the nugget where Orwell compares his drive to write and publish as some kind of sickness, fever or spell. He says that one can investigate their personal history, their soul, their family history or anything else you like to figure out where the haunting to write comes from, but that at a certain point such investigation threatens the compulsion itself. The writer only wants to know so much about it. He conveys a spirit of submission to the illness, as it were, best to leave well enough alone.
I liked the idea of being “driven” by an outside force, a mysterious spiritual catalyst of creativity, but Orwell’s conception of the drive married another impulse, which happened to grow over time, to pathologize the act of writing. Not exactly a sustainable condition for a writer.
Since at least adolescence, writing has been with me as something I “ought” to be doing. This was without any real role model for doing it or consistent suggestions from family or friends. There are writers I enjoy, but I don’t have any literary heroes. Ask me for my inspiration and I’m at a loss. This always struck me as odd and difficult to accept—and it certainly isn’t the kind of thing I find other authors divulging in interviews. If I were to write, something must be wrong with me or with it. Once again, unsustainable.
Then, after I proved time and time again that, yeah, I can write and get published and turn some of these symbols outward to the world and the world will in fact react, I effectively stopped writing. Sure, I’ve been working on a novel these years, in stark fits and starts. Yes, I’ve been generating ideas—but I haven’t tried to get an article published. And as you can see, I haven’t even blogged. After Feeloading, I shut myself down. I have more than a few ideas why, but I don’t “know” why and, while somewhat curious, may no longer care.
It is what I did: the choice and choices I made. Writing frightened me. I frightened me. The fuel I’d been running on, that writing was something I somehow “had” to do, took me to a dark place that I knew, if continued, would grow darker still. I lost my nerve. So, unsure what to do, I stopped and I’m grateful for it.
I may have misread or misremembered Orwell, but what I take from that nugget now is that, sure, writing does start as a kind of illness but, if you are to continue with it without destroying yourself, it must become a choice; a choice to take the specific action of assembling letters into words; a choice to get those words in front of your people in an appropriate way; a choice to do it for its own sake; a choice to welcome the discomfort and inconvenience of all of the above.