Why Are We Writing?

To write is to think about writing.

Who wrote that? It’s not a new thought, by any stretch of the imagination. People have been discussing about ‘the act of writing’ since ancient times, making the topic part of a rich tradition stretching back to the ancient Greek rhetoricians.

But what is it about the writing process that is so important—apart from its obvious use as a tool for record-keeping? Why have humans been talking about writing for so long?

Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus provides us with an early glimpse of how these conversations would have gone in ancient times. In the Phaedrus, Plato’s ever-present interlocutor Socrates recounts a fable where the ibis god Theuth brings writing to the king of Egypt:

“O King, here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wise and will improve their memory; I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom.”  —Socrates in Phaedrus, 274e

In this passage, Plato associates writing with memory in a very ambiguous way; it’s a characterization that’s inspired many interpretations over the centuries (for one of my favourites, read Jacques Derrida’s essay “Plato’s Pharmakon”). Plato’s characterization touches on the idea of history (as collective/ collected memory) and, for most educated ancients, this would’ve been the obvious purpose of writing: writing was one of the few ways for an individual to leave behind a legacy.

Today’s world of social media, digital photography, and blogging makes leaving a legacy easy. Using writing to leave your mark on history is harder, however, thanks to all the noise. So why are we still doing it? Are there simply more pragmatic reasons for it, or is there something about ‘the act of writing’ that continues to inspire people to “take up the pen”—or, more accurately, to pull out their laptop?

I like to believe the latter. Modern society tends to fetishize the various habits and rituals that accompany the act of writing—a sure sign that it continues to wield some mysterious power over us. One brilliant example of this is that stage in the career of every famous writer, where some magazine publishes an article discussing their writing idiosyncrasies.

“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation.”

—Haruki Murakami in The Paris Review

People love obsessing over these mundane details. Some writers have a prefered place to write: one particular room in their house or a favourite coffee shop. Some can only write on specific models of typewriters, others must compose early drafts longhand. Often a particular time of day allows them to write more easily. Or a specific exercise regime will permit better creativity.

Whatever the case, you’re tempted to ask: why do we care?

Because all writers want to unlock the secret to ‘great writing’.

And here’s the real secret: there’s no such thing as ‘great writing’. Writing only becomes great when others acknowledge it to be great. Until such a time, it’s just writing.

Another modern trend are writers who write obsessively about ‘the act of writing.’ Karl Ove Knausgaard is a great example of this, particularly in the New York Times-published pieces about his travels through America. Knausgaard’s “bare-all” style of narrative does more than just sell his family’s personal lives in some Faustian bargain for literary success. It turns the act of writing into a process of myth-making that’s both tedious and epic by turns.

Knausgaard’s writing circles back an early literary trend that began with Beat writers like Ken Kesey and Jack Kerouac. This generation of authors clung to the idea that experience is necessary for great writing. You have to live something before you can write about it.

But while figures like William S. Burroughs created writing-worthy experiences through sexual and pharmacological experimentation, Knausgaard just writes about the mundane. And it works, because what the Beats really got right was not the subject matter, but their process…

There’s no greater glory, it seems, than writing about something truly badass that you, or people you know, have done—and this holds true from Hemingway all the way back to Homer. Writing was creating reality TV before reality TV was ‘a thing’.

Ultimately, all writing is autobiography. This isn’t a new idea either, but it’s true on a couple of levels. First, all writing is forced to draw from your experience in some way; whether that experience comes from watching a TV show or from your fever dreams. You can’t write about something you have no framework for imagining. Second, you have to think through an idea before you can write about it—re-imagining the scenario as you plot out its linguistic depiction.

This inherent autobiographical tendency makes writing a supreme act of ego. The writer is basically standing there shouting, “Look at me, I am here! Pay attention to my thoughts!”

So is writing just a big ego trip then?

I don’t think so. In my mind, ‘the act of writing’ is synonymous with self-examination. It may be a supreme act of ego, but it’s a self-directed act of the ego—a person’s attempt to inspect and witness themselves (to a greater or lesser degree).

To write is to think deeply and intentionally about ourselves. And I think we keep doing this because, to quote Socrates again, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” And that’s why we are still writing, several millennia later—and why we’ll keep writing.

Thanks for reading! 🙂

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