Intro from Joan Didion’s Why I Write
From the New York Times Magazine, December 5, 1976:
“Of course I stole the title from this talk, from George Orwell. One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this:
In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.”
I was introduced to Joan Didion my sophomore year of college. I didn’t actually meet her—that would be a long stretch and way, way out of my literary league. Rather, I should say, I was introduced to her work and the nuances between her earlier memoir pieces and modern day masterpieces. It was during my sophomore non-fiction creative writing class when I first heard her name. It was deemed to be one I should have known by then in my early twenties. I heard of no such name at that point in my life. It was during that same semester that I knew I wanted to be a writer. I couldn’t say it out loud— writer— it sounded so fake, so far-fetched. After all I didn’t actually want to be a writer, the likes of Joan Didion and other prolific novelist’s careers did not seem appealing to me. No, I did not want to be an author; I did not want to write a book. I wanted to be an editor. There, that sounded more professional, more legit. What truly makes someone a writer, anyways? When I published my first article for a renowned magazine site I then felt worthy enough to call myself a writer. Even now it sounds like a cop-out. “What do you do?” “I’m a writer.” Cringe.
But back to Joan. If I truly wanted to be a writer, an editor, put pen to paper, however you want to call it, I thought it was only fair to dive head first into the sea of literary geniuses. My unworldly mind suddenly became privy to Sylvia Plath’s mental plight, and Margaret Atwood’s dystopian worlds, and Gloria Steinem’s revolutions. After I read Joan’s Year of Magical Thinking I felt…. Dare I say, smarter? I felt like my dinner conversations and work conversations held more depth. A fellow poetry enthusiast took me to the greatest library goldmine I’ve planted my feet upon to date—Strand book store—and sat with me on the floor reading aloud passages from Plath’s Ariel. I left that day with Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and an empty vessel I wanted to fill with newfound knowledge of the greatest women writers of our time. I loved poetry too, as much as I loved prose, but I couldn’t name a single poet. I didn’t know any writers and I didn’t know any poets and I felt like a fraud. I sat in the library during finals week and read through Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets not because I particularly liked Shakespeare but because I didn’t feel worthy enough otherwise to say I loved poetry. Can an artist say they love art if they can’t name a single artist? Can an athlete say they love sports and not name a single player?
Every writer I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing (whether that be through their work, which often times makes you feel like you truly know a person, or through an actual verbal encounter), has felt like a fraud at some point in their career. Joan certainly felt the throes of imposter syndrome when she walked into elite parties and wondered why she was there. When I read a person’s writing, from the back of a cereal box or a headliner on the WSJ, (I will read anything I can get my hands on),I instinctively critique the words plastered before me. I'm my own worst critic when it comes to my own writing. When someone says I'm a good writer, a part of me thinks they're just saying that to be nice. I don't fully digest their words to be authentic. I was at a party this weekend when someone asked me how long it takes me to write and edit a piece. I answered by telling her I write, and whatever comes out, comes out as is. I rarely edit save for grammatical errors or word usage and even then I'm not so thorough because I look at it as my own raw stream of consciousness. And when my writing is actually critiqued, even when I ask for it ("you need to be careful of your tenses" "stop using cliches" "read your piece out loud to yourself" "writing is like a muscle, keep working on it"), I question my abilities even more. Am I good enough? The two overarching sentiments I feel fall under, “I write better than her/him” or “He/She writes better than me.” It’s difficult for me to look at my work, as it’s own stand-alone island, when I’m constantly comparing my work to others. I either feel my writing is worthy or not worthy. I can’t tell whether or not my writing is good objectively when to me it’s subjective matter. I just know when it feels right or when it feels wrong.
I started writing when I was 10. My fourth grade teacher, Miss Fish, assigned the class our first essay and when into rudimentary detail about what an essay entails. My first fiction piece was about my younger self, standing by the door in the darkness waiting for my mother to come home. I got lauded for the piece so much so that I was sent to the principal’s office. Me, the trouble maker I was at the time entered his office and reflexively said, “what did I do this time?” I couldn’t afford another call home to my parents. “We are so impressed by you. This piece is on a high school level.” Phew. I still have a letter of praise from Miss Fish telling me I’ll be famous one day. (Hardly, but the sweet accolades have definitely kept my writing going through the years.) They ended up featuring my piece in the 8th grade newsletter. Since then, writing and I have been attached by the hip.
So, back to the age old question: Why do I write? I’m no George Orwell or Didion, but I could imagine like them I feel a sense of urgency to put pen to paper. Like I mentioned in a previous piece, writing is my drug. I explain the euphoric feeling that washes over me when I enter the world of words. “As soon as pen hits paper I feel transfixed. I get so caught up in the English lexicon; it never ceases to fascinate me. Words are my cocaine. Syllables and adjectives and hyphen’s are my euphoria. Idioms and platitudinous proverbs are my high. I snort my words like they’re freshly lined up, waiting for me to breathe in. It gives me life.”
For me, words were always the most exciting thing in the world. I never thought my zest for the english lexicon can turn into a hobby let alone translate into a career. I put it aside for years, leaving this activity for journal entries and academic essays. But every time I took a writing class throughout high school and college, I was never so sure about anything than I was with the worlds sprawled before me. I write because it gives me purpose, it gives me a voice. It gives other people a voice that don’t have the words, don’t have the strength to say what they’re feeling. My biggest writing regret is not saying less-- it's not saying more.
Like Joan said writing is very narcissistic. Truth be told, I write mostly for myself.
I guess I really am trying to impose my views on others. Make people feel. Open up a can of worms. Be relatable. Make an impact. Let people in. Be vulnerable. Share a common space with others. What I find most interesting is how innate writing came to me. We’ll never know where we’ll find passion if we don’t try. If we never pick up a pen or a paintbrush or enroll in a theatre class. What if I was assigned an essay later in life? Would that shorten my years finding meaning in what I love most? I could call my passion innate but that would discredit my great-grandfather who wrote love poems to my great-grandmother and their son, my grandfather, who wrote love poems to my grandmother.
Could writing be in my blood? Is that why I write?