Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On Worms, Pear Blossoms, and Mortar: Why I Write

Weronika Janczuk posted about George Orwell's and Joan Didion's Why I Write essays. Didion's opened a can of worms for me. Orwell's calmed those worms and sealed the can up again.

I have always wanted to write novels, but really, deep down, I didn't think I had the personality for it. Joan's description of struggling with intellectualism when all she wanted was to observe pear blossoms sounded like standard writerly thinking to me. Writers need to be concrete-minded and observant, they need to recreate the universe in a new way using all that stuff (like pear blossoms) they've stored up in their noggins.

Since I am neither concrete nor particularly observant, I used to fear I was not cut out to be a novelist.

Back in school, while teachers explained to me the finer details of arithmetic, history and vocabulary, I'd drift into a nebulous place of patterns and ideas. When they handed me a thing that just was, say a physics formula, I asked why. Why does the X go here? Why this particular multiplier? My physics tutor told me he was just learning those things himself in the graduate program, and couldn't give me an undergraduate version of the answer. I was supposed to accept that it was as it was, and trust it fit into the bigger picture. I think I got a C in physics just to spite him for withholding the 'why' answers from me.

Now, I could bypass why stuff in order to memorize information. I recited five pages of Romeo and Juliet when the teacher told us anything over twenty lines meant bonus points. I won the Vocabulary Bee sophomore year. I just stuffed it all in that short-term buffer of my brain and used instant recall. I didn't do it for the love of the details. I did it because I was an overachiever who enjoyed showing off.

Why do I write? It's not to capture moments on paper, or because I am fascinated by how sensory details are laced with poignancy or emotion. I am not the Joan Didion kind of writer. Hearing her motives for writing jangled my nerves and opened up that old can of worms because my writing doesn't come from that place. My brain doesn't work that way.

My writing comes from the other end, the end Joan admitted she couldn't wrap her head around. Closer to George Orwell. His thoughts soothed my writerly identity again. George said he wrote his books for four reasons: ego, aesthetics, historical recording, and political agenda.

I have an ego. I want to be noticed for and remembered by what I put on paper. I enjoy the aesthetics of writing, the poetic nature of words and imagery. I don't even mind marking time; fiction is something of a snapshot of the culture and mindset it was created in.

But most of all, I write for the point of it. Orwell's point was politics, and he defined that term broadly: Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.

I don't necessarily care so much about society as I do the individual and the nature of their existence. Questions surrounding philosophy, spirituality and psychology. And not really the traditional ways of viewing these things, but more the existential questions that come from mixing them up in a blender, pouring them in a clear glass and shining a light through the end result. This is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night.

Orwell said this: What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.

Me, too. What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is make existential writing into an art.  The flowers on the pear tree and how they smell* only strike me as useful if they serve as a sensory handle to the vehicle of an important idea. To this end, I chase after and wrestle sensory details onto the page. For this purpose, I form characters and set up tension in plots. Otherwise ungraspable concepts can become easily accessible to a wider audience when outfitted with concrete examples like pear blossoms, lovable characters and a thrilling climax.

I suppose most writers start with the stuff of the story and let the themes rise from their unconscious to fill in the cracks like mortar for all those sensory detail bricks. I work the other way around. I pick the mortar. Color, consistency, strength over time. Then I grab the most interesting bricks lying around that have the right texture for sticking to that mortar. When I'm done, I'll be looking at the mortar and smiling. Most everybody else will just see the bricks, but since I know it's the mortar that holds them together, I'm more than fine with that.

I know I'm not MFA material, because I tried a semester and nearly gagged on the lack of practicality. The 'why' questions were all being answered, but at the expense of too many 'what for?' versions. So while I wonder about the meaning of life, the universe and everything, I need a reality check to feel complete. Once I've got a nebulous concept, what do I do with it?

I write a story.

I get a character, push them through the gauntlet of a plot, and have them stop to smell the pear blossoms.

That's why I write. Big ideas need places to live, and stories are the easiest and least offensive homes I can build. Thank you, Orwell, for letting my kind of motives be okay in the narrative profession. And thank you, Didion, for not being at all like me. There's room for all kinds, right?

*For the record, I think the pear blossoms in my front yard smell like Desitin, but, since no one else agrees with this assessment, it probably showcases how awful I am at observing sensory details.

P.S. The worm graffiti shown above is a weird image, but the only one I could find with both worms and brick mortar (even though the mortar is black and I far prefer white, and the worms look a little crazy...then again, the worms in that can were pretty crazy when I first opened it). To complete the titled trifecta, and to inspire joy of visual concrete observation, here are some pear blossoms:


  1. This is so you. You are marvelous at distilling your thoughts. My attempts to do the same involve a lot of pained expressions and hand-flapping. Well said.

    - Liz

  2. Kudos for trying the MFA, I've had a lingering worry that other writers won't take me seriously if I don't have one. However most of the books that I love weren't written by MFA's. Go figure.

  3. Wow! Powerful stuff. I hardly know how to react. I guess I'll just say that I have a favorite quote from your blog: "most writers start with the stuff of the story and let the themes rise from their unconscious to fill in the cracks like mortar for all those sensory detail bricks." I think that's where I am.