WHY WRITE?

The trouble with writing is that you must first find something worth saying. Which is more difficult than it seems, because unlike dust bunnies and tax collectors, things worth saying don't just show up if you wait long enough (and they also don't take your money when they do). The trouble with writing from a prompt is that you must find something worth saying about something you may not know much about, or have little reason to contemplate.

"Why write?"

What an odd question. One might as well ask an actor, "why act?" a painter, "why paint?" or a doctor "why doct?" They will probably say, "because I'm good at it and I like it," to which the doctor might also add, "and it pays the bills."

Ultimately, however, such answers are very broad and don't actually reveal anything worth saying. After all, you can find reason enough for anything between those three phrases (except, perhaps, watching an episode of "Survivor"—but some things are better left unexplained). However, many people are still able to make a living writing badly, to the dismay of English teachers everywhere, and others write regardless of whether or not it pays the bills, much to the horror of their parents. In fact, most of the people that write aren't professional writers or journalists, and write only because they like it. So, in an effort to extract something useful from these musings, I must change the question to "Why do people like writing?"

The reasons for writing are so numerable and various that any attempt to address them all is bound to fail. Additionally, there are always exceptions, so examining the general case tells you little more than a politician at a press conference. Therefore, the only case that will teach you anything that is worth examining is yourself.

So why do I like writing? Great writers have tried to answer this question for me. The most common answer to such a question is "to express myself," but since the great majority of those who gave this answer blend together, I conclude that they were either unsuccessful or simply not unique. Since I aspire to be uniquely successful (and have a certain aptitude for statistics) I feel as if this isn't the best response.

Others say they want to be remembered after they die (at least someone did, though I can't recall who). But writers come and go like leaves in a stretch of New England wood, and we all die one way or another, either composting peacefully on the forest floor or hanging from a tree (for those few writers who aren't deciduous in nature). But, since I am neither foresightful nor macabre, I am not yet concerned with my epitaph.

Some cynics try to be original by saying that they write "for the money." However, given the wits and determination it takes to become a successful writer, one would be far better compensated by pursuing a different profession, such as financial accounting or being Bill Gates. Furthermore, it isn't writing that they like, but money, which defeats the purpose of the question.

Many believe they are on a quest to make the world a better place. What, then, do writers add to society? Something to read on a rainy Sunday afternoon? Companionship by the fire? Kindling (the newspapers—not the writers)? They certainly don't build bridges or feed the world's poor (although reporters, journalists, and newspaper columnists do a great job keeping the homeless warm). They write to reveal what readers are too caught up to notice; the problem being that when they do, readers are often too caught up to care. Since I have yet to find some world-changing, profound truth, I'll pass on this reason as well.

In his essay "Why I Write," Orwell isolated four reasons that he believed were present in every writer: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. These motivations are fairly self-explanatory, apart from historical impulse, which Orwell explains as the "desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts"—as opposed to untrue facts, or, for that matter, useful facts—"and store them up for the use of posterity."

Orwell is certainly right, though, for these motivations do exist (the proof: the other day I was writing a Petrarchan sonnet in my journal protesting the policies of the van Buren administration from 1838-40). He even mentions how these motivations change over time in any individual writer. But for me these motivations change from project to project—even from page to page—so that none of them is permanent enough to constitute a general motivation for "why write." For example, the previous paragraph I spent ridiculing other writers to soothe my ego (I normally just feed it beef jerky, but I was feeling generous), whereas I will soon find myself in serious contemplation of the nature of love (hint: it's not motivated by political purpose).

Further reading reveals Orwell states he does not think "one can assess a writer's motives without knowing something of his early development." Ignoring the fact that Orwell assumes all writers are male, one can see that looking to the past may reveal something useful about my motivations for writing.

I remember pretending to be able to read. My mother read Curious George to me so often that I had memorized it, and so I would recite the story aloud while paging through the book. It was painfully obvious what I was doing, however, because I sometimes forgot parts of the story, and oftentimes I would not be reading the words on the page, but rather the words from the previous page or the next. Nonetheless, I liked reading, but more than that, I liked stories, because they were invariably more exciting than whatever I happened to be doing at the moment. It was this interest in tales and storytelling that segued into my enthusiasm for writing.

My first proper literary endeavor was a story I wrote in the fourth grade about a pair of ocelots, which I have subsequently lost. To this day, however, I am convinced that it is a work of unparalleled genius, the likes of which I have never been able to reproduce. I enjoyed writing that story, so I did what I do every time I have fun: I did it again. However, I soon discovered that copying my story word for word wasn't as exhilarating as I had anticipated, so I thought I'd write something different—a sequel. I still didn't know why I liked writing it, but I was hooked, and I have written ever since.

It was not until this year that I had written proper nonfiction essays, and in many ways, it was a new experience. I felt like Sherlock Holmes, investigating myself (for some petty, nonviolent crime, of course), with clippie as my hapless assistant ("It looks like you're writing an introspective essay!..."). Each essay was a mystery waiting to be solved, and to succeed I had to look inside myself for the answer (there is an organ just above the pancreas where the answers are stored).

After all, that is the nature of writing: exploration. When you write, you explore your own thoughts. You take the ideas in your head and put them in solid form so that you may scrutinize them and find their flaws and nuances. The easiest essays to write were the ones where I trod over ground I had previously investigated. Conversely, the ones that I struggled with were the ones where I explored the most new ground. Writing an essay was a process through which I could uncover some kernel of truth about myself. At the end of five essays I had accumulated quite a bit of knowledge, for each time I went through the writing process again, repeating it redundantly, I learned something more about myself. From the writer's perspective, then, each essay is a chance for self-reflection (however narcissistic the thought) and self expression, limited only by the precision of one's own eyeglass. For some this is the point, but for me this was part of the process. The goal is not the journey, but the destination: what you get when you add each step along the way. Analogously, this conclusion can be applied to the question, "why do I like writing?"

What, then, is the sum of egoism, enthusiasm, impulse, and purpose? What is it that excites an of irrational, untraceable fondness (besides brownies and kittens)? It is more than liking, because when I like something I can you tell why I like it (brownies: they're delicious; kittens: they're delicious). What form of affection defies explanation, driving writers to do crazy things like toil endless over a sentence or write Ulysses? It is love. They love writing.

The problem with the previous explanations is that none of them alone was able to satisfy the question, yet as a group they were ridiculous. But one must realize the difficulty in explaining away why you love writing, because inherent in that proof is the explanation of love, which is naturally a feeling without a rational explanation. Thus, I see now why my earlier attempts were futile: love is absurd. It is an utterly senseless, irrational emotion. It makes as much sense as this simile. It cannot be explained, which makes it a form of insanity.

Thus we are left with the only conclusion: I write because I am insane.

Except without the disease, shipwrecks, and imperialism commonly involved in old-fashioned exploration.