I've been thinking a lot lately about why I write. Which, of course, is the title of George Orwell's 1946 essay, which was then stolen by Joan Didion for her 1976 essay, and most recently by our new poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey, in a February 2011 essay on poetry, history, and social justice. Why write? As I am finishing (yes, finishing) my new book, Still Writing, I come back, again and again, to the question of my own motivation, formative thought, feeling, geography, history–-all of which has led to this strange, out-of-step life. It is a life of surprising gifts, unsurprising indignities; despair, elation, rejection, and––to use Martha Graham's phrase––queer, divine dissatisfaction. A life that I did not choose to live–but one that chose me.
Why write? Orwell's essay is about political purpose. "I cannot say with certainty which of my motivations are strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed; and, looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives, and humbug generally."
Didion's essay is, at its core, about emotional and intellectual clarity: "Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear."
My favorite passage in Trethewey's recent essay is her response to the question, why poetry? "Because poetry ennobles the human soul; it opens--not closes--our hearts. Poetry matters not only because of its aesthetic beauty, but also because of the possibility of humane intelligence--its ability to teach us what we have not known, to show us what we have been blind to, to ask us the most difficult questions regarding our own humanity and that of others. Across time and space, it shows us how we are alike, not that we are different."
There you have it, all of it, the whole megillah. We are creatures of our moment, of our birthplace ("Geography is fate" said Heraclitus), of our circumstances, our loves and our losses, our preoccupations, our obsessions––which is to say, our themes. We cannot free ourselves of these any more than we can shed our own skin. And why would we want to? They are our own small corner of this universal crazy quilt. Why write? To shine a light; to right a wrong; to shape chaos into art; to know what we think; to pose difficult questions; to challenge our own beliefs; to connect.
Because we have to.