It was my very first university English lecture, before I’d even developed my student addiction to coffee. I crowded into the large lecture theatre with a few hundred other first year students and sat towards the middle, a perfect model of uncaffeinated attention and focus. Fresh notebooks, new pens, a bottle of water. Our lecturer arrived, stood at the lectern, and began to talk about the general outline of the course and how everything would work.
And then he spoke to us about why the study of English was important. One arm anchoring himself on each side of the lectern, he looked up from his notes and seemed to stare me right in the eye. Slowly, and with a certain weight in his words, he said:
“It’s not worthless to love literature. It’s not worthless to love ideas.”
A silent and invisible ripple went through his whole audience, a wave of electricity, validation, relief. It’s okay, he was saying. You’re not mad and it’s not just you. Your gut feeling was right; this stuff really is important. We were hooked. Years later, I still haven’t forgotten that moment.
Most readers and writers seem to know instinctively that literature and stories are important. But why do we write? What makes us do it? It’s a question that I’m sure all authors and scribblers have asked themselves at one time or another, whether out of an idle curiosity or in a pen-throwing, paper-crumpling moment of despair. Here’s the collection of answers that I’ve accumulated for myself so far:
- To ‘photograph’ life, so moments don’t fade under the erosion of time and memory. Writing allows us to capture flights of fancy before they float away. Lines on the page form the bars of a cage, with words trapped in between. (Their servitude means our freedom).
- Because we want to. Because we can’t help it. Because there is an undeniable compulsion to write. (This leads to the absolute necessity of notebooks). We have to siphon off our bulging imaginations if for no other reason than to function more effectively in our day to day lives. I can get lost in the strange wilderness of fictionland, and it sometimes gets to the point where I have to exorcise it from my system. Writing is the release valve.
- Because it’s fun. We get to play God. We get to save the world. We get to be the heroine and the villain. There’s a freedom in writing that you can’t quite obtain in the real world – at least, not without violating some criminal codes. (See: playing the villain, above).
- We write for the pure exhilaration of it. There’s nothing like that sudden spark of inspiration, tricky plot points abruptly falling into place, or your own characters making sense in ways you’d never even dreamed of.
- For some people, writing is an escape. Personally I prefer to think of it as an exploration. (If I want an escape, I’ll let another author do all the hard work for me and then I’ll go and read their book). It depends partly on what genre you’re writing in. It can take you away to a world without tax return paperwork and dirty dishes in the sink; alternatively, it can take you deeper into that world, and remind you why it’s worth living there in the first place.
- As cliché as it may sound, we write to make sense of life. Language is the tool that we use to organise our experience. Without words (without art), we’re trapped inside our own heads with no way out. Writing is a form of self-exploration, excavation, and sometimes a weird kind of therapy. When we write, we uncover the things that really matter. We figure out what’s important.
- Because it’s not worthless.
- Because it can change the world.
(You might think I’m just being whimsical, but that last point was serious.)