A few weeks ago I read Joan Didion’s essay Why I Write after my friend Mamie sent it along for a writing prompt.
The piece originally ran in the Times in 1976, and shares a name with George Orwell’s treatise. Didion immediately acknowledges that she stole the title. Who could blame her? I’m sure that every writer must ask themselves “Why I Write” at some point; it’s a simple but pressing question. I’ve been grappling with my own answer lately. Writing is my full time job. It’s been a while since I embarked on any personal projects (like this newsletter) or actually followed through with pitching any ideas. Suddenly, after years of dormancy, I’m trying. But it’s hard, and not very lucrative. There are many other, better writers out there. Why even bother?
Of course I don’t agree with everything in Didion’s piece, but it still helped me see my own reasons a little more clearly. She says that “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. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act.” Right now I’m not so motivated to convince anyone; neither am I telling myself that my voice matters all that much (maybe I’ll change my tune if I ever do an op-ed). Rather, I’ve been thinking of my output as more of an invitation. Perhaps you would like to see from a different view. Perhaps you would like to know why. I write to share, and hope that people will gain something by reading.
Didion says that she prefers to write about concrete topics and images, instead of abstractions. I feel similarly drawn to explore what’s happening in real life, which is why I like reporting. There’s so much to look at and learn about, so many people to listen to. I have questions, and writing lets me answer them. I’m interested, and writing keeps me from getting bored.
Mainly, I write to usher ideas and stories out of my brain to make room for new ones. Didion says she’s driven by images that shimmer, and have a certain energy that’s begging to be transferred. She asks, “What is going on in these pictures in my mind?” I am often possessed by images, and ideas, and my own analyzing. I once interviewed a neuroscientist who studied meditation. He told me that his practice helped him stop narrativizing what was happening, and instead simply observe. It might not surprise you that I struggle to meditate, because of course I am constantly narrativizing what’s happening. I’ll repeat a story to myself again and again until I have a chance to put it in a journal or a note. Writing allows me to snip the never-ending loop so it shimmies into one line, then another.
I do wish Didion had told us why she didn’t write, though. The inverse must unite writers even more. What stopped her, when or if she ever paused? It feels like before a few months ago I wasn’t writing because it takes a lot of time. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been listening to each episode of Sugar Calling, where Cheryl Strayed interviews other writers. They all talk about how their work calls for social isolation. Well, I’ve never wanted to give up taking trips or hosting dinner parties. Last Wednesday, I attended a workshop on freelancing from journalist and author Meredith Talusan. Listening to Meredith talk about her writing practices was sobering. To get work done, she has set rituals, writes with a timer, uses a computer without internet, and takes retreats. I was reminded that writing requires a lot of discipline. It’s serious business!
And I wonder, too, whether Didion, and all of these other writers, have ever been afraid of writing. It seems like they don’t talk about that part as much, but I’d really like to know. Sometimes I am terrified of even posting a tweet. Writing feels so very permanent, when the world and I are changing all the time.
I guess the thing about being a writer, unfortunately, is that you have to keep writing. Even if you’re uncertain what will happen. It makes me feel a bit better that Didion poses her projects as new inquiries each time, a chance to negotiate unknowns until they form a book or article or poem. I’ll end this essay how she ends hers. Explaining how her book A Common Prayer came to be, she says: “Let me tell you one thing about why writers write: had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.”
Nova: My friend Joyce has been working on this short film for years, and it’s out now! Here’s a synopsis: “Written and directed by Emmy award winning director Joyce Tsang of Only Today, Nova is a story that encourages kids (and the kid in each of us) to embrace their curiosity and embark on adventures along the way. Set in 1977 and 1994, Nova is about a girl who dreams of the cosmos and has an impactful encounter with renowned astronomer Dr. Sandra Faber.”
I barely cooked this week (thanks to my mom and Trader Joe’s frozen Indian entrees). One highlight was these sourdough discard pancakes, which are fluffy and sweet, and remind me of when we could order a stack for the table to share.
The coronavirus pandemic
The End of Poetry by Ada Limón
-I’m in love with these two humorous book-related Instagram accounts: Thom Stead applies makeup, costuming, and photo editing to recreate book covers ; Josh Berta tweaks book titles to be coronavirus-relevant.
-The New York Public Library created a sound experience called Missing Sounds of New York: An Auditory Love Letter to New Yorkers
A song to leave you with: