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The New Yorker: James Baldwin, A Letter From My Mind

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16 December 2023

Why (I) Write?

FRED SHAW

I have previously written two other pieces for this publication. Behind all the poorly constructed  sentences, unfunny jokes and collapsed attempts at style there remains an effort to convey a message. In the first of these pieces the theme is pretty obvious. In the second, it is still quite obvious, but hidden behind the pretence of a book review. (1) The theme in question is alienation, wrapped in the phenomenon of boredom and general dissatisfaction. To write about such subjects with authority requires a pretty healthy dose of said subjects to cling to the writer. And like a fart in an overcoat,  both have been clinging to me especially strongly as of late.

I like to consider myself, in the loosest and most unprofessional sense, to be a writer.


In the same way a self-proclaimed gardener may pay attention to a rosebush for a while longer than your average person, or brandish a trowel every second Sunday of the month, I am a writer. But lately I would be pushing the bounds of reality to claim even this. I have not written anything of substance or interest for a while now apart from on Substack, which I thrust upon people, unsolicitedly using the email subscriber function and advertise unashamedly on my LinkedIn profile. (2)

 

However, since returning to university this chronic lack of creativity and literary rocket fuel has reached its nadir. Any vague ideas or sparks of inspiration seem to be drowned in a sea of irrelevance and insecurity. Having been caught up, like so many others these days, in the puritanical impulse to be ‘productive’, any wandering trains of thought are quickly dispelled in order to focus on my seemingly more important academic work. I spend much time sitting and staring out of bus windows, the technicolour lights of shopfronts glaring back at me, realising that I indeed have very little to say about the world that might be in any way unique or insightful.


I have, however,  repeatedly returned to one idea which seems to subsume all of the concerns currently afflicting my writing habits. I hope this will appeal to all of those that read and more importantly write for Sleaze, since it is probably a question you all ask yourselves fairly frequently. As you can see at the top of this piece, I have crudely appropriated the title of a George Orwell essay which explains his own motivations for writing. So, in the midst of my creative doldrums, with the bright colours of Leith Walk staring back at me, I found myself asking this simple question: why do I, or anyone for that matter, write anything in the first place?

I will reassure you now that this piece will not be some long, drawn-out history of the written word, lest I bore you reader, or myself for that matter, to the point of acute self-hatred. Rather I think it is more interesting to approach this from the point of the individual’s motivation for writing in the present age. I mean what the hell would motivate anyone to pick up a pen, or load up Microsoft word with the seemingly endless array of alternatives that are so much more immediately entertaining. These may include but are not limited to: social media scrolling, YouTube, pornography, teleshopping, shouting obscenities at passers-by from a car window, all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets, the history channel, drinking alcohol, chasing pigeons around Hunter’s square, biscuits, crisps and quite possibly ready-meal curries. 


I guess the answer to this question first lies in the question of why we bother doing anything at all. In the face of an overwhelming desire to do so in order to sound clever and well-read, I will spare you the psychology lecture on a topic I really know very little about having only read on the internet five minutes ago. Instead, I will give you my personal answer. (3) I know no one who gets away with doing absolutely nothing in their life. I do know someone who, without much excuse, is perfectly happy waking up at 1pm most days and eats Soreen malt loaf before sitting around in his dressing gown playing a game centred around European domination in the Middle Ages. However, even he is forced by his better nature to occasionally apply himself to his university work, go to the pub or run around the foot of Arthur’s Seat a couple of times a month. As human beings we are meant to bear a load – we cannot get away with doing absolutely bugger all. Maybe as an experiment to test my hypothesis, try doing nothing yourself. And by this I don’t mean don’t get out of bed or eat or drink. I mean try not to exert yourself. Don’t do any physical or mental exercise. Sit around in your pants and watch day-time TV. Spend all day scrolling through your phone, watching men sat behind big microphones telling you why eating frogspawn will increase your testosterone four-fold. 


So, I guess I’ve partly answered my own question. We do things that aren’t purely centred around hedonism, in the sense of avoiding pain and seeking pleasure, because deep down it isn’t good for us. In the end it will not make us happy. But this doesn’t answer the question of why one writes. In fact, I’ve wasted nearly a thousand words and five minutes of your valuable time avoiding the question I set out to answer at the beginning. For this I apologise. Do not stop reading just yet, I’m about to get round to it.


There are plenty of other things that you can do to occupy your mind besides being weird enough to start jotting words down on a page. Some people become mathematicians, doctors or even bankers- buying and selling only money. I think it appropriate to defer this issue to the man I so flagrantly plagiarised in the title. In his essay Why I Write, Orwell first talks about an innate desire that a writer possesses and his efforts to cast such literary ambition firmly into his youth:

“Between the ages of about 17 and 24 I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down to write books.” 

 

In Orwell’s experience there is something inside that compels you to write – an inner voice screaming to get out and be spilled upon the page.


He also cites a plethora of other reasons for writing that I am sure no honest writer will deny. Sheer egoism is one. Our ugly, selfish desire to be known by others and leave some kind an imprint after death. (4) Another is political purpose. Now of course this is very Orwell-esque. Anyone worth their salt knows that he writes books that are either overtly political or have a politically fired message. But by this he means ‘political’ in the broadest sense. He believed that writing should carry a motivation to alter people’s ideas of what kind of society we live in and how it should be changed for good. In this way a writer certainly shouldn’t be parroting what a politician says but rather eek out contemporary problems, capturing the quintessence of the age in which we live. 


I came back to his essay for perhaps the third or fourth time and as always it did not disappoint. (5) Although, sometimes I think this explanation doesn’t always do justice to the internal compulsion any writer will attest to have. I, along with many others I’m sure, want to write with the belief that they are exposing a lie or in some way changing someone’s opinion and the way they perceive the world. However, I think this can be a self-defeating motivation. I read the news most days and think desperately about how I could present an alternative conception of events – something edgy and thought provoking. But in a haze of indecision and insecurity my ideas always implode. I feel as if I have nothing unique to tell people, no way in which I can write something which wouldn’t simply be repackaging and rehashing something that has already been said.


Ok, so I can’t say anything of remote importance or even interest. I’m back to square one, sat on the top deck of the 35 bus heading North. Is there nothing that compels writers other than political motivation? To answer this question, I will defer to David Foster Wallace. 

In his 1998 essay, The Nature of Fun, Foster Wallace tackles the idea of writing head on with all its paradigms and paradoxes, pleasures and pains. (6)

 

He quotes the metaphor used by Don DeLillo in his book Mao II, comparing a book in progress to a terribly damaged infant child that follows you around wherever you go. In some ways you resent the child for the burden it heaps upon you. But because it is your child, you love it. You will take it round with you forever, you will not abandon it. Foster Wallace sees this trope as perfectly summing up the writer’s experience:

“It captures the mix of repulsion and love the fiction writer feels for something he is working on. The fiction always comes out so horrifically defective, so hideous a betrayal of all your hopes for it – a cruel and repellent caricature of the perfection of its conception.”


He also describes the paradoxical process of achieving success and acclaim for your writing and how this traps you in a terrible cycle. He admits, like Orwell, that much of what motivates you to write is to satiate the devouring hunger of your ego. You may have originally been compelled to put words down on the page because you enjoyed it – it was good fun. However, after a while, you write stuff that you think people will like, in order to be liked. After all, writing involves putting yourself onto the page, unearthing parts of yourself that you didn’t want to unearth in order to say something. And, if people don’t like it, they are effectively telling you that deep down, you’re no good. 


Eventually however, this evolution in the cycle will kill you. As Foster Wallace says:

“At this point in the evolution of writerly fun, the very thing that’s always motivated you to write is now also what’s motivating you to feed your writing to the wastebasket. This is a paradox and a kind of double-bind, and it can keep you stuck inside yourself for months or even years…”


Christ, he seems to have got this exactly spot on. He’s elucidated the egomania that exists in any writer. But how the hell do you get back to it? How do you break the paradox and start writing decent stuff again? Or perhaps not even that. How do you write stuff at all? Foster Wallace suggests the antidote lies in getting back to your original spur. What got you to sit down in front of a keyboard in the first place? Perhaps the only reason is because it’s just fun. And as Foster Wallace admits, it is the kind of fun that is disciplined – a kind of fun you work out is even better than hedonism. 

“You don’t expect anybody else to read it. You’re writing almost wholly to get yourself off. To enable your own fantasies and deviant logics and to escape and transform parts of yourself you don’t like.”

 

In case you are wondering (you probably aren’t), and you want to know my personal opinion – why I write – then I will go over it very quickly before I wrap up this mammoth piece which mainly relies on nicking other people’s ideas.

 

I write because there is simply nothing else I can do.

 

And I don’t mean this in the sense that it is the only thing that I have an ounce of competency in. You might have read this far and think I’m crap. Rather, it is one of the few disciplines in which I find joy. Life, with all its boredom, misery, ugliness and complexity would fail to suffice if I couldn’t write the odd thing here or there. Even if it involves scribbling some trivialities in a notebook, there is something that is just inherently enjoyable about the whole damn thing. It separates your parts, slaps you around, keeps you awake at night staring at the horrible cream white ceiling, while simultaneously it pulls you back together, strokes your head and tells you everything is going to be alright.

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(1) As much as it may seem so, this is not an attempt to plug my aforementioned articles. I promise.

(2) If you are an employer and wish to connect with me on LinkedIn and maybe even give me a job then do not hesitate to ask Sleaze Magazine for my contact details. I must add however that I refuse to work anywhere with smoothie makers in the office, bean bags, a ‘relaxation cubicle’ or any weekly newsletter that stresses the importance of walking outside or kombucha consumption.

(3) This seems like the fashionable thing to do nowadays. It’s all about ‘lived experience’.

(4) I know, I’m really stretching it with this one.

(5) I would encourage you all, Orwell fan or not, to read this essay.

(6) Similarly, this is a must read.

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