Sunday, September 08, 2013

Why I Write

I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, because I want to split infinitives only when I intend to break the rules.

I’ve been infected with the writing sickness since childhood, and it has only gotten worse as I’ve grown older. As I write this, it’s Sunday morning at 11:48 a.m., and I’m feeling guilty because I haven’t written yet today. I went to the farmers’ market instead of writing early, breaking my promise to myself that I would put in two hours of work.

Back before the sickness really took hold, it was enough for me to go to the farmers’ market of a Sunday morning and feel virtuous while buying locally grown vegetables and learning how Brooklyn composts. But now my writing sickness is in full flower, so here I sit repenting for my sin, delivering forth words like counted beads on a rosary.

I’ve heard some people refer to the sickness as “feeding the monster,” which reminds me of that 1960 cult movie directed by Roger Corman, "The Little Shop of Horrors," about a sad-sack gardener in a flower shop, Seymour, who has inadvertently created a Venus flytrap hybrid with an insatiable taste for human flesh. Seymour starts out by nourishing the plant with his own blood and eventually ends up murdering people to feed his monster, Audrey Jr. (named after a girl who works with Seymour at the flower shop). With every feeding, Audrey Jr. keeps growing bigger and bigger and more out of control. It turns out that she has the ability to speak, and she makes constant demands: “I need some chow!” and “Feed me. Feed me! FEED ME!” That pretty well describes my relationship to the writing monster I’ve inadvertently created for myself.

Seymour confronts the insatiable Audrey Jr. in Roger Corman's "The Little Shop of Horrors"
When I was younger, I didn’t know what to write about, and I thought the whole trick to writing conformed to that old cliché: the sudden flash of inspiration. When inspiration struck, I told myself, I would finally write story after story, book after book. In the meantime, I read story after story, book after book. The narratives that appealed to me most involved runaway girls, sneaky free spirits setting out on adventures, strangely solitary girls making their way alone in the world. Pippi Longstocking sailed the high seas, Harriet the Spy hid in dark corners and wrote unsparing critiques about the people around her, Wanda Petronski told her rich classmates that she had one hundred dresses at home even though she wore the same faded blue dres to school every day.

I suppose you could say that even then, my subject, which falls into the easy categorization of “bad girls,” had already found me. My recognition of it, though, didn't strike in a sudden flash. Bad girls crept up on me slowly and steadily, especially when events in my life went wrong, and now I find that the subject is an eternal spring, the one true thing that compels me to write and keeps me writing. I’ve got a couple of novels and short stories in progress, and they’ve all ended up sharing the theme of runaway girls who do wrong.
In another “Why I Write” essay, George Orwell says that he, too, fed a wee monster that grew bigger when he began to write in earnest. As he describes it, as a boy he seemed to be making a descriptive effort almost against his will, under a compulsion that came from outside.

“For minutes at a time this kind of thing would be running through my head: ‘He pushed the door open and entered the room. A yellow beam of sunlight, filtering through the muslin curtains, slanted on to the table, where a match-box, half-open, lay beside the inkpot. With his right hand in his pocket he moved across to the window. Down in the street a tortoiseshell cat was chasing a dead leaf’, etc. etc.”
Orwell says there are four great motives for writing: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. Orwell chose politics as his subject, or rather, the subject chose him. Yet even the author of those great political novels Animal Farm and 1984 admits that anyone who examines his work will see that when it is “downright propaganda,” it contains the sort of literary aesthetic that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant.

“I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood,” Orwell writes. “So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself."

I, too, love scraps of useless information. Indeed, I suspect that it’s those very scraps that motivate me to write more than anything else. I hang on to those odd little pieces of information, those forgotten moments that no one has any reason to remember, fleeting feelings, random thoughts….and I try to call attention to these scraps that speak to me.

Some time ago, when I spent the greater part of a year at the British Library “looking up the dirty parts in old books,” as I liked to tell people, I stumbled across a volume in the rare books reading room, written by an unknown author and published in England in 1804. Titled “Eccentric Biography; or Memoirs of Remarkable Female Characters, Ancient or Modern,” it credits the French courtesan Ninon de Lenclos with owning a favorite small dog named Raton, “taperly and elegantly formed with yellow hair.” This Raton was Ninon’s constant companion and reflected or mirror his mistress’ dainty? appetites wherever she was invited to sup.

“She placed him in an elegant little basket near her plate, and he was literally, her officer of health,” wrote this English author from 1804. “He maintained most strictly that regimen of his mistress, which preserved her beauty, good humour, and her health, to the advanced age of nearly a hundred years. He did not suffer her to make use of coffee, of ragouts, or of liqueurs. Raton suffered quietly to pass him the soup, the boulli, and the roti, but if his mistress seemed inclined to touch the ragouts, he growled, fixed his eyes upon her, and sternly interdicted the use of these enticing dishes….When the dessert came, however, he sprung quickly from his basket, gamboled on the cloth, paid his compliments to the ladies, and received in return for his caresses a few macaroons, of which two or three satisfied his appetite.”

I have never known quite what to do with Raton, but on several occasions, I have tried to introduce both his gamboling ways and the author’s foreign manner of speech into some piece of writing I was working on. Orwell points out that “all writers are vain, selfish, and lazy,” and I’ll agree with him on the first two, but not the third. Writing is work. Finding a place for Raton and making his appearance seem natural and inevitable is a struggle.

“One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand,” Orwell writes, turning to that useful metaphor of the insatiable monster. “For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.

So yes, the need to be heard is a good explanation for why I write. I was the youngest of four kids in my family, after all, and talking on paper lets me express myself without teasing or interruption.

But to my mind, the greatest explanation involves the mysterious relationship between me, the writer, and you, the reader. Who are you? Why do I need you to understand why I write? I believe the answer lies in my simple desire to entertain you with a good story. At its best, storytelling allows both you and me to experience the loss of self. “One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality,” as Orwell puts it. “Good prose is like a windowpane.”