For a while now I have been contemplating getting into regular blogging, but I couldn’t quite find the time, which I admit sounds odd for a man on holiday. I’ve been at this draft for weeks now, but only recently have I mustered the resolve to bring it to completion. On a slightly more trivial note, I couldn’t quite decide what to write as well.
To my mind, there is an infinite number of things one could write about. Over the past year, I have been rather taken with JS Mill’s philosophy, that which I find to be extremely relevant in today’s world. There’s also the subject of tech; friends who know me well will be aware of my fascination for AI and the transhumanist agenda. However, of all the topics likely to clear a Sunday barbecue these are perhaps the most pungent. Maybe one of these days I shall write about those, but at present, I shan’t bore you with such. Instead, I have found it fitting to expound on the very exercise of writing itself, to reflect upon the very forces that drive me to do this on a perfectly serviceable holiday afternoon.
Why do I write? Why does anyone write? At least for me, it is important that I take this opportunity to meditate on these questions, and I will tell you why. But first, allow me to introduce an excerpt by way of beginning. This is extracted from a letter from Rilke to a young correspondent, who, upon having his poems rejected by various editors, turned to the poet himself for advice.
There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.
Rainer Maria Rilke
Note: I should mention that I’ve never read Rilke, and the above is in fact excerpted from another book I happened to be reading (Letters to a young contrarian by Christopher Hitchens).
I’m sure Rilke was a good sort, but this is cheap advice by my reckoning, albeit with an air of sophistication. Most people won’t die if forbidden to write, and the rest of the excerpt offers nothing about how one should hone his craft. It’s obviously not meant to be taken literally, but I imagine I’d be quite livid if I were the correspondent. For starters, pithy aphorisms like ‘dig into yourself for a deep answer’ come across as grossly patronising and offer no help whatsoever. It’s like that scene in Kung Fu Panda where master Shifu hands Po the dragon scroll, only to reveal a blank, reflective surface. No wonder Tailung got so upset. It’s a bit of good cinema for the kids, but as far as career advice goes, it’s shoddy at best.
Anyway, I digress. While the nature of Rilke’s counsel leaves much to be desired, the passage does drive home a very salient point: writing demands no small amount of impetus. From Orwell to Keats, the greatest writers were not shorn of purpose, or they would never have produced such works. Nobody ever takes pen to paper just to kill an afternoon. Anyone who does so either produces rubbish or is in good need of a lobotomy (or a life, in the language of my peers). Good prose often comes imbued with purpose, that which brings art and form to the banality of mere words.
In his essay Why I Write, Orwell lists four reasons as to why anyone writes: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose.
I suppose the average person writes with an infusion of all four. It would be folly to deny that I am at least a little egoistic in this regard, and I suppose the same for everyone else as well. In his analysis of human nature, Hobbes famously wrote that man is ‘glory – seeking’, amongst various other pronouncements. We are concerned with what others think of us, and we want them to give us the regard we deserve. When it comes to writing, I think quite often there is a desire to appear clever, and even as I write this I must confess that some part of me seeks glory and validation in doing so. Nobody likes to admit this for fear of being labelled a pretentious twat or an arrogant prick, but I see no need to offer a defence here. It’s an unpalatable truth no doubt, but that doesn’t mean we should be hypocrites about it.
What about aesthetics? I daresay no one is satisfied with crafting merely pedestrian prose – not even the most unlettered types. If you believe writing to be an art as so many do, then your natural inclination would be to produce something aesthetically pleasing, especially if it is meant for an audience. It matters little what others may make of it, for even the most wretched writers must have some warped concept of aesthetic enthusiasm. Take for instance the celebrated charlatan Low Kay Hwa, who writes fiction so ghastly they should just park it under the horror section. And yet surely, even this con man has long since convinced himself of the artistry in his work! There must be some term for it, but I think any craft that requires a creative mind usually affects a kind of vanity. The artist is at once his harshest critic, and also his greatest admirer. Van Gogh was thought to be absolute rubbish in his life, but surely even he must’ve known beauty in his work. It is the same with writers. Anyone who publishes anything (even on a blog) betrays an arrogance in assuming his writings fit for reading, and naturally, I do not except myself from it.
As for historical impulse and political purpose, I shan’t go on about it. Historical impulse means little to those like myself who are not involved in academia, and I suppose all writings carry some hint of political purpose, even the wretched excesses of the penny dreadful.
Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.
George Orwell, Why I Write
There are many other reasons why anyone would write. For Anne Frank, a pen and diary provided rare comfort in times of great trial. In the case of Marcus Aurelius, his meditations were exactly just that at the point of writing, though it has now become a key instruction in Stoic philosophy. Surely Orwell of all people should have been aware of this, that writing can also be a great source of respite for the weary of heart. There are a great many writers who intended neither fame nor fortune; they merely wrote to quench the soul.
Aside from purpose, there is also a function. Writing exists alongside multiple forms of illustration, like photography or painting. All these are mediums through which ideas may be conveyed, but even in an age of visual information, there are things words can communicate that pictures can never. A picture of fried chicken may get you salivating, but a lively caption has the ability to invoke even the senses of taste and smell (I guess this is why we have food blogs). I shan’t belabour the obvious since I don’t think anyone disputes the importance of writing. The point I’m trying to make is that the written word can go far beyond the visual. It allows us to see using our mind’s eye and paint cognitive images with our imagination, which is something not even the innovations of modern cinematography can replicate. Today we have IMAX, CGI, and the like, but anyone who’s read the Harry Potter series (or any book series for that matter) will know that the movies don’t do the books any justice, and they never will. Whether it’s an elegant turn of phrase or an arresting metaphor, these are little things you can never capture on screen. Print may well be dying, but written prose will not. Of course, I am not advocating writing as the preferred medium, so far as it is my own. I have no gift with the brush, and as for the camera, I cannot claim competence. I am reduced to illustrating my ideas through words and am perfectly content to occupy that space between pictures.
Such are my musings on writing. I apologise if you have found it discursive, but the act of writing sometimes brings us down blind alleyways. Why do I wish to write then, and beyond that, why do I want to show you this? Much like everyone else, I think writing provides me with an avenue to reflect. It allows me to organise my thoughts and mull over books that I have read, or pertinent issues that I feel warrant my consideration. In addition, I have long professed to want to be a better writer, but if I never publish anything, then I will forever be veiled from much-needed criticism. It is not just writing, but the process of publishing anything in itself that makes us scrupulous writers. There is a tedium in running through countless edits in producing anything that I deem worth reading, and in the process of doing so I find myself the better for it.
Beyond that, my consideration turns to you the reader. Again, allow me to be presumptuous for a while, but I believe I have perspectives that are worth your time. I am unsure what direction this blog will take, but I am a sucker for the controversial. I expect that sometime in the future my opinions will cross certain people, but I welcome argument. Too often we hole ourselves up in our ideological safe spaces, and that includes me as well. We learn nothing from sitting in echo chambers, and my hope for this blog is to provoke some level of thought and discussion about the more salient issues. Ultimately, while I enjoy a healthy readership, I also resent captive audiences, and nobody is obliged to read anything I write. For as long as I write, I place myself in the safekeeping of your good taste, and I hope I never fall foul of it.