As I sit down to write this article, I am struck by the realisation that I have never properly examined my own motivations behind wanting to write – why, in the face of reading lists, deadlines and various other commitments I have volunteered to write 1000 words on a subject that is unrelated to my degree. Usually in this sort of situation – that is, where I am unsure of my own thoughts on a subject – I tend to just start writing and trust that the writing process will reveal them to me. If I am lucky, my thoughts will organise themselves into some semblance of order that will convey an element of insight or understanding.
I believe that this is true of writing in general. At the outset, we do not know exactly what the finished product will look like. We may have some idea of what we want to say – the more practical among us may have sketched out a structure, the main points and the central argument – but we don’t know what nuances we may discover, the links we might make, and how the thread of the argument will wind its way through the prose. In that sense, a piece of writing is a route to understanding.
This applies to fiction, too. Often novelists will claim that their characters took on a life of their own, and that they just had to follow them through the pages to find out what happens in the book. Obviously, the novelist is aware that the character comes from her own imagination, but this implies that writing is a process of discovery – whether it is how a story will unfold, what we think about something, or how we feel at a particular moment in time.
As such, it is easy to see why an individual can personally benefit from the process of writing. Much of our writing, however, is not kept to ourselves – it is released into the world, to be read by others. Despite the technological ease with which we can converse remotely using dialogue and images, writing remains a key method of communication between individuals. Even though letters are no longer the only means of communication between separated lovers, friends or family, card shops are still a booming business; somehow our sentiments are made more meaningful in written form.
Writing is also a powerful way of conveying a message to a wider audience. People have always been moved to write on issues that they feel passionately about. The adage ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ has persisted due to its empirical truth, and has been used to great effect by writers over time, from the New Testament to contemporary writers such as Margaret Atwood, whose dystopian fiction has made an important contribution to the feminist movement, showing us that (in her own words) “a word after a word after a word is power”.
George Orwell once claimed that “no book is genuinely free from political bias”, citing a “desire to push the world in a certain direction” in every person. Writing has always responded to what is happening in the world. It can initiate discussion, create solidarity and provoke social movements. We have never been more interconnected and aware of the problems facing humanity. The current political, social and environmental climate has instilled in us a sense of urgency that change needs to be made. With the advent of blogging and social media, many people have taken to writing as a means of joining the conversation.
In that sense, writing can imbue the writer with a sense of purpose. We find it hard to accept the idea that our lives are largely dictated by chance, luck (or lack of), and a variety of externalities. Philosophers throughout the ages have used writing to give meaning to our existence, from Aristotle to Alain de Botton. This is of particular importance in today’s increasingly secular society, where we can no longer rely on religion to give our lives significance. Large cities remove the sense of community that we once took for granted, and our jobs often do not give us an outlet to express a personal identity. The memoir is probably the most obvious contemporary example of the human need to impose a sense of narrative on our lives, though this practice has existed in one form or another for thousands of years.
We also have a tendency to apply this self-deceptive rationalization to current events, even those that seem to defy sense or logic. Journalists are quick to provide an analysis of the causes, contributing factors and the lessons that can be learnt. By participating in this process, we both seek to understand and to protect our pre-conceived notions of humanity. Writing gives us back some power; we have total control of the words that we write onto the page, and how we shape our thoughts.
Words can also provide a refuge. Fiction writing in particular allows us to enter a world of our own making, where we have control over the outcomes. It is no coincidence that the fantasy genre increases in popularity in times of economic and political struggle.
After the gloom of the previous paragraphs, it seems appropriate to mention one of the most important reasons we write: for the joy of it. I am writing this article because I love the process of getting words onto a page, and the way it allows me to delve into topics that I am interested in. And I am not alone: many people dream of writing a novel or having a career as a writer. It is certainly not for money – writers are notably poorly paid – so it must be providing some other sense of fulfilment.
Writing is as important now as it has ever been. While forms and styles of writing have evolved over the centuries, they all stem from a human desire to express our feelings, seek understanding, and give meaning to our lives. We are driven to write about the same subjects that we have always have – love and hate, life and death, good and evil and everything in between, from the macro to the minutiae, the serious to the trivial. We write for ourselves, for the reader, and for wider society. And I think that’s probably a good enough reason to write an article for Cherwell.