This is a piece i wrote a while back, found it worth sharing again.
I am 23(ish) and I generally introduce myself as a student; I feel uncomfortable introducing myself as a writer for some reason. You would think that after getting a book published it would be reasonably safe to call yourself a writer, but it isn’t easy. It’s very difficult to break the deadlocks and come out of the safety of being a student who writes for fun and declaring yourself to be a writer who is still studying and exposing yourself to the criticism and general scrutiny that one invites along with that. I’ll make a small disclosure today – the reason I started writing Billion Dollar Bastard, was because I wanted fame; (the kind of dizzy ambition that comes with being an eighteen year old) and then, the thought process was still quite instinct driven and the eyes used to be easy dazzled by bright lights. Now four years down the line, I am as instinctive if not more and the lights still make me dance but a couple of things have changed; one, I’ve learnt to look at myself from an external perspective which kind of, you know, gives me a sense of right and wrong and two; now I have the benefit of hindsight but having said that, I still get caught in the flow of it all sometimes and all that I’ve mentioned above evaporates and I become a directionless animal.
One of the questions I’ve started asking myself recently is – Why Do I Write?
I’ll start with the last two stanzas of Charles Bukowski’s “So You Want To Be A Writer?”
“don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.
when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you
There is no other way
There never was.”
This is the first work of Bukowski’s I ever read and it made me a fan. If you read the whole poem, he lists the motivations people have for writing. He states that these motivations are wrong and misguided (in his own direct, fluid, simple way) and lists the motivations that should drive writing. Every writer should have this poem pinned to their wall.
Every time I’ll read this poem, I’ll realize how long a way I have to go before I can call myself a writer.
In his 1946 Essay, “Why I Write” George Orwell writes about four reasons that drive writers –
“ Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:
(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.
(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.
(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
(iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.
It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time.”
I can relate to the fist one; right now most of my writing is probably driven by that. I don’t like that fact much, but it is how it is. In pursuit of fame, one runs away from writing out of understanding of one’s surroundings and tries to write pop literature. This is true most for amateurs like me; I guess, if I keep reading and keep writing I’ll shirk this off. Let’s see.
I talked about understanding one’s surroundings before; about personal experience being the subject of one’s writing. American author Joan Didion had some similar but more striking and alluring reflections –
“I had trouble graduating from Berkeley, not because of this inability to deal with ideas — I was majoring in English, and I could locate the house-and-garden imagery in The Portrait of a Lady as well as the next person, ‘imagery’ being by definition the kind of specific that got my attention — but simply because I had neglected to take a course in Milton. I did this. For reasons which now sound baroque I needed a degree by the end of that summer, and the English department finally agreed, if I would come down from Sacramento every Friday and talk about the cosmology of Paradise Lost, to certify me proficient in Milton. I did this. Some Fridays I took the Greyhound bus, other Fridays I caught the Southern Pacific’s City of San Francisco on the last leg of its transcontinental trip. I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in Paradise Lost, the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote 10,000 words that summer, but I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits into a grayed and obscurely sinister light. In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus. During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.
Which was a writer.
By which I mean not a ‘good’ writer or a ‘bad’ writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. 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. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?”
All these writers, poets, their thoughts make me a better writer or at least a better philosopher, or so I hope. I’ll end with a paragraph from Henry Miller’s “The Wisdom Of The Heart” which I read on brainpickings.org which got me to write this blog post.
“On the surface, where the historical battles rage, where everything is interpreted in terms of money and power, there may be crowding, but life only begins when one drops below the surface, when one gives up the struggle, sinks and disappears from sight. Now I can as easily not write as write: there is no longer any compulsion, no longer any therapeutic aspect to it. Whatever I do is done out of sheer joy: I drop my fruits like a ripe tree. What the general reader or the critic makes of it is not my concern. I am not establishing values: I defecate and nourish. There is nothing more to it.”