Why Write?

Writing is about enlarging the mind, the expansion of consciousness, the addition, as the critic R.P Blackmur liked to say, to the stock of available reality.

This quote is from the “to find beauty and truth” chapter of Mark Edmundson deliciously readable meditation, “Why Write.”

blackmur-portrait-princeton-alumni-weekly-21-may_-1943Each chapter outlines a motive as to why people put themselves through the dreary act of writing. The chapters are called things like:

  • To get the girl / to get the guy
  • to strengthen the mind
  • to change the world
  • to drink
  • to see what happens next
  • to have the last word

I love each of these chapters because Edmundson takes these common impulses to write and shows how superficial impulses can grow to become noble and vital actions.

The “to have written” chapter starts with a common observation that students want to be in the state of having written so that they’ll have something to talk about and get a promotion. They want the lifelong vacation and they want Time magazine to pay for it.

It’s not exactly a pernicious impulse, but Edmundson shows how that impulse, when deepened through hard work, can become extraordinary. Someone who’s written an honest, good work has (to paraphrase Whitman) made their innermost their outermost and the effect on the now bonafide author is always stunning:

She who has written (and done it will) has figured it out. She’s come to her own conclusions. Such a person possess what we call character, in that any day we approach her on a matter of moment she is consistent and sure: she is always herself. And there is something true and admirable about this self, something that compels affection and respect even from the most wayward.

It’s a rare thing to reach this stage, and few writers rarely approach that stage of self-awareness. Edmundson continues:

When most of us talk about wanting to have written, what we mean is that what we’d like is to take a lifelong vacation, at full pay (or at what we imagine full pay ought to be). But there’s another way to think about the state of having written as well: some, if only a very few, will be able to walk out of the game telling themselves that they truly have taken time to think enough and then to write it all down. To be one of them is no small matter; nor is it a small thing to aspire to be.

Why Write” contains many more clever takes on our impulses to write. Each chapter adds to and deepens our common impulses to write. It’s an inspiring, funny, and eye-opening read to anyone who likes to write or wants to know what all the fuss is about.

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