Why I Write
This is a title borrowed more than once. Perhaps I use it merely to put myself in the company of George Orwell and Joan Didion. Or perhaps it is just a universal thing, a title for all of us. For some of us it is akin to Why I Breathe. I choose to paint, but I do not choose to write. It is like eating and breathing. One is not voluntary at all, the other is but is still required to sustain life. Perhaps what I do is compose ideas, and painting and writing are both ways to express them, for express them I must. If I could do neither I would be forever speaking out loud, like a crazy woman muttering to herself, which is essentially what I do when home alone anyhow. When all forms of expressing myself are taken from me, that is when I will die. I do not need an audience, but I must put the ideas outside of myself just as I must breathe. So I write.
I have thought of myself as a writer since the age of eight. I was a reader from the age of five, before I went to school, and only a few years later I learned that I could write stories. At school it was called Creative Writing and it was my favourite subject, though it was only marginally considered a subject. It was not a serious subject but then reading, which was also a favourite was not even a subject at all. I also loved report writing. Reports written by an eight year old were rather more about looking up a subject in the encyclopedia, copying the sentences that summed up the content and putting one's name on the page. Nobody told me about plagiarism until a few years later and I do not recall anyone ever actually teaching the skill of making notes and putting ideas into my own words. I learned it gradually, slowly, after being told things like "don't copy" and "use your own words". I puzzled over how to take something like "Rabbits have four legs and a short tail." and say it any other way, thus being able to claim the words as my own. Influenced by the archaic books I was inclined to read, I fear I probably wrote things such as, "Four legs and a short tail, has the rabbit."
Eventually I took up writing poetry. Very bad poetry, desperate to rhyme even at the cost of meaning, surreal yet childish themes of teddy bear battles and drowning dolls. I abandoned it after witnessing the puzzled look on the face of my friend's father, whom I had proudly showed my latest work to. I had misused the word ceased having completely misunderstood its definition from my literary experiences of it. I was eleven. I was crushed. I stopped writing poetry. I wrote some very long stories which were novels in my head, having written them out by long hand twice and achieving twenty pages. One of them earned me an A and a bonus sticker, a butterfly, from my school teacher. Then I discovered essays. Essays had a mixture of fact and opinion, might be personal or might be on a topic of interest, an issue, a situation. I fell in love with essays. I didn't love the school assigned essays, write 1500 words on why Hamlet is a sorry mess, for instance. I could do them better than average and my ability to write them and my love of literature lead me to university where I pursued a degree in English Literature.
I loved this time and yet it was also a very crushing time. At university I learned that I was not very smart, not very skilled or talented, and that other people who were much better than I wanted to be writers and weren't shy about it. I did what I had to do to complete my degree and then I turned away from writing. It wasn't for me. I had better find something practical to do. I had better teach small children to write instead, help them to understand how to write about rabbits in their own words. Time went by. Life does that; it keeps you busy and moves your forward until you get to that place where you finally stop and look back and wonder how it is that so much time has passed. It's a different place for us all, but for me it was in my early forties, with big life changes that included acknowledging my inability to be employed due to chronic illness and the upheaval of my divorce. Twenty years had gone by and in that time I had returned once to writing, for about a year and then again lost hope and confidence and faced the difficulties of finding time for it when my energy resources were so drained. Many times in those decades I had begun and abandoned diaries, personal journals begun in a brand new floral covered coil bound notebook. Half way through them I would decide this daily recording of my thoughts and experiences was drivel, nonsense, and dull. What was the point? I always destroyed the notebooks. It would be mortifying to die and have my terrible writing found!
I got up the courage once to submit a children's story to a publisher. It was rejected of course, and probably had not even been read. I am easily crushed. Easily told I am of no value. It's not something I am proud of but it is a sad fact. At nearly forty eight years old I am finally getting stronger, better able to believe that my value is what I say it is, not what anyone else says it is. I didn't know it could be like that. I had always assumed that life was about proving myself, being awarded approval by others, and then hoping to maintain it. I didn't know my own strength until I had a child and had to fight for him. If I could do it for him, surely I could do it for myself. In fact, I had to do it for myself if I was going to remain strong for him. I learn slowly in this life. I am a late bloomer, a slow developer which is odd for someone who was also born an old soul, whom everyone had commented on throughout childhood for having great maturity. It is a strange combination, maturity that lacks self confidence.
I appear self confident. It seems to ride on the coattails of maturity so I was always treated by others as much more confident than I was. I imagine this was to my benefit over time, that it helped me to become what people thought I was, but it was hard. I have lived much of my life pretending in order to survive. I am a good actress. I can look and behave as though I have all the confidence in the world but how different it might have been if I had not. Perhaps I could have hidden away more, withdrawn more, looked as timid as I felt and been left alone. But I am who I am and I did what I did and writing is how I live with the person that I am and the world in which I live. My thoughts, my observations, questions, moments of enlightenment, moments of doubt, all are best processed if I write.
Joan Didion writes that writing is how she knows what she is thinking. That may be true of me also. I suspect it is the reasons I am writing this now. I frequently write in response. I read something, hear something and immediately as thoughts start to form I am compelled to sit down and write them. When I am asked to write on a particular topic, when I am trying to find thoughts on something I would not normally have pondered, I have to talk first. I think out loud as I build my collection of ideas. Then I am ready to write. When I am faced with my own thoughts, ideas I have not been asked or told to come up with but the things that come unasked for, I will talk or I will write. I do love to talk, but if there is nobody to talk to, nobody with whom it is safe to explore my ideas, to think outloud, nobody with the patience or desire to listen to me and feed my ideas with ideas of her own, then I write. And since I am so often alone, I write. The ideas must come out of my head in order for me to see them.
Joan Didion and I have two other things in common, and they may well be all. We both completed degrees in English Literature and we both missed out on any formal teaching of grammar in our schooling. I know what I know from reading and I suspect that is what she would say too. She compares it to knowing how to play piano by ear. I know how English grammar should be employed but I generally cannot tell you why it is so other than that it arranges the words so that they say what you mean. I cannot explain or point to past participles or dangling modifiers or adverbial clauses though I could work backwards and figure out what they are. And at the very least I know when I don't know something. I know when I need to look it up or when I am perhaps deliberately breaking a rule. When I re-read first draft work and find the run-on sentences I blush. Joan figured out that she was a writer, accepted that she was a writer, boldly put herself forward as a writer much sooner in her life than I have. I am well behind. It has taken me a long time to understand that I am a writer because I write and not define a writer as someone who is paid and published. Paid and published means accepted, validated by others, being awarded that approval and then maintaining it through fame.
How I would hate fame anyhow. Acclaim, well yes I would like that. But fame? Public appearances and book signings and things said or written about me in the public domain? I loathe the idea of selling myself and I am fantastically bad at it. I do not think that I fully comprehend how writing and putting it on the internet makes it very public and very permanent. It is probably best that I not think about that too much but inevitably I will and I will write about it. Can a writer ever not write about why she writes?
Here I am last week, attired in cosy, loose and unbelted layers so I could go out with my dear friend Sheila for our little cafe loving writer's group of two. I am grateful for door frames to hold me up and to Sheila for driving that day.