Author Susan Orlean wrote in an essay in Telling True Stories that there are a few questions all writers should ask themselves. The first – and as I see it most important – is “Why did you want to be a writer?”
I’ve been thinking about this question a lot over the past few years, trying to find my own unique answer through the work of other writers. That’s the funny thing about writing: You have to find your own style by drinking from the fountain of your forefathers.
George Orwell, for example, dedicated every piece of his writing to fighting totalitarianism after being shot in the Spanish Civil War. This led him to write brilliant pieces of societal criticisms, such as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Ernest Hemingway wrote that he – and all writers – used writing as something of a suppository for feelings, giving readers “the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was,” per what Hemingway wrote in a 1934 issue of Esquire. “If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.”
Joan Didion said that if she knew why she wanted to be a writer, she would have never had to start writing in the first place.
In The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write that a journalists obligations are to the truth, to verification of fact so citizens can stay informed about the world.
All of these felt like great approximations of why I write: The fight for a world free of tyranny is what drives anyone trained in journalism, I think. Even in the little corners of the world where I work, I’d hate to see some ugly-headed boss grab up too much control and take away the freedoms of people trying to live. And like Hemingway, I love trying to put the emotional and sensual core on the page, to tell a story with images and pictures so vividly that others feel like they can see them. And Didion is right too; there’s something missing in me and every writer I’ve ever known, some acknowledged absence of knowledge that we’re looking for from the thoughts spilling out of our heads and through our hands. And as a journalist who loves the scientific method – the twin sister of the journalistic search for truth – I agree wholeheartedly with Kovach and Rosenstiel.
But there’s something else, too. In writing, I find my fear of death, my worry that tomorrow won’t come and I’ll be quickly forgotten.
Of course, I could write a book as revered as Infinite Jest and I’d still be forgotten. Humans are but a flicker in time; our race will eventually forget James Joyce and Michael Jordan and, god forbid, Beyoncé.
Even so, writing sometimes feels like an active grip for life, some attempt to hold on to life’s love and meaning and relationships and twisted realities a bit longer, to allow people to see the world through my eyes even after they stop blinking.
In December, I tried to find the meaning of my life by writing every morning from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., roughly, about what my life meant. It didn’t go well. The process made me sad, dredging up sad bits of history and thoughts of how little I mattered in the present moment. It was like flying up into the sky in a plane, looking down, and realizing that the plane will never stop ascending. Everything became so small.
This happens to me sometimes, as I’m sure it happens to you and anyone with a functioning brain who bothers to wonder why they’re alive. I look at the gift of life, wonder where the meaning is, think “why?,” and come to the conclusion that my “why?” isn’t good enough. Where are your kids?, I asked myself in December. How do you help other people? How do you even help yourself? It’s a defeating line of thought, likely to occasionally depress even those who save lives. How can any of us do enough to cure the ills of man and make up for our own insecurities?
In 1951, Albert Einstein received a letter from a fan who asked him what the point of being alive was. Einstein responded with a simple but brilliant answer: “To create satisfaction for ourselves and for other people.”
When I saw Einstein’s meaning, I realized that meaning was more simple than I had considered. Life, like writing and science and journalism, is a process of finding truth, and we should enjoy that process. That’s our meaning, and we’re never finished creating it. Our morality, our feelings, and our actions are protean, changing and reverberating off others and ourselves over our years, hopefully helping us evolve into better people and a better world.
And this is why I love writing and why I’m a writer. Sure, it’s fear of death and love of imagery and love of truth and hatred of being controlled and this certain I-don’t-know-what-the-fuck, but it’s also a want to create sanctification for myself and other people. To highlight ugliness or to create bits of beauty, to show life in motion or at a standstill, to examine that which would otherwise bloom, wither, and die alone without a loving hand carrying a flashlight.
Writing, reporting, and researching also helps me learn, meet new people, and consider new viewpoints, all of which give me immense satisfaction. I consider writing to be the acid test of the human experience; if I write something, can others think how I thought for a moment? Can they feel what I felt? Can they be taken to some new setting? Or think some new thoughts? Will they call bullshit?
Writing is an endlessly satisfying and frustrating process. Contained within words is much of what we’re able to know about the human experience. When I think now about why I want to be a writer, the simple answer becomes: Because I love the process. Because I love people. Because I love thinking and creating and passing the microphone to others. Because I love being proven wrong as much as I love being proven right. Because the thought of doing anything else makes me want to crawl into bed and sleep for days. Writing gives me satisfaction, and I hope it gives others satisfaction, too.