Why do we write? You may think it’s a simple question, but that doesn’t mean there is a simple answer. Author and editor Peter Salmon dives into his reasoning and asks other writers to do the same.
"Don’t be a writer; be writing.”
– William Faulkner
In the last issue, curmudgeon that I am, I railed against those who want to write books but who don’t want to read them. Apart from
being baffled that they ignore possibly the best toolkits for being a writer – the work that has gone before them – it just seemed to me odd that someone would want to write a book if they have no interest in the things themselves. No one decides to make an album if they don’t listen to music. And, as I noted then, it is usually painfully obvious to any astute reader when a writer is not interested in books. There is a certain dead voice that seems appears in these novels – they aare like a drawing of a house by an amateur, rather than an architect.
This, for me, comes back to a more fundamental question, and one I am often asked – why do you write? It sounds a simple question, and there are some simple answers. One simple answer is ‘for money’. This is an absolutely valid answer, and good luck to anyone who a) does this and b) makes money. After all there are a lot more nefarious ways of trying to make a buck, so personally I prefer the idea of someone contributing to the world of art and culture than many other things they could be doing.
Another answer, and one that pleases me enormously, is ‘I love books’. It’s the reason I started, after all. As I said on my last article, people who read books are generally more intelligent, more empathetic, more emotionally tuned in, more attractive, and much better lovers. My evidence may be mostly anecdotal on this, but I have had tremendous fun gathering the data, so you’ll just have to trust me.
But for me there is a deeper answer, and one that anyone who wants to write good books needs to think about. Why does anyone write books? Or poems? Or plays? Why do humans make any sort of art. What is it for?
I’m not going to go into the deep psychology of this – there is plenty out there. We all know that art can be (but doesn’t have to be) healing in some way – to take a banal example, when Diana died thousands of people who had never written a poem in their life were suddenly spirited into verse. Leaving aside whether that is a valid thing to be in grief about, and whether the verse was any good, obviously for large numbers of people the poetic form allowed them to give expression to something they were feeling, in a way that just saying ‘I’m sad’ didn’t.
And I would hope that all of us have, at some point been moved by a piece of art in some way that is difficult to express, be it a piece of music, a book, a painting and so on. Some emotion is captured, possibly one we have no name for, and we feel a resonance that we don’t feel in other situations. Again, this is all perfectly valid.
But for me, at this moment in time, where I think it is uncontroversial to say that the domain of art is shrinking (funding continues to be cut; there is less art on television, radio and in print; education about art is being reduced) there is another key ‘function’ of art, and another reason to be getting to the page. Writing – good writing especially – offers a competing narrative to so many of the ways of seeing (to use the late great John Berger’s phrase) the world that are at best narrow, at worst corrosive.
To take a random but pressing example, the language of economics, which, at its worst, assigns humans a monetary value. The entirety of our being – our loves, our hates, our tastes, our experiences – is judged against how it contributes to the financial prosperity of the nation, with those things that don’t being held against us. This is a ‘way of seeing’– or of creating a narrative – which says how we should live, and which assigns a value to aspects of how we do so.
To take another example, if you’ll excuse the generalisation, science. Science is – as any scientist will tell you, and as many non-scientists don’t realise – simply another way of seeing the world, or creating a narrative. It is one that does have a very specific truth test – does it work? Newton, for instance, came up with a terrific way of describing the world that worked for a long time, until Einstein pointed out that bits of it didn’t, and came up with a story that worked better.
For me, this idea was a revelation, and I remember precisely what occasioned it, and I plan now to digress, so hold on to your respective hat. Back in the 1990s, before most people were born, I was in a class at university on the philosophy of science, during which the wonderful and wonderfully named Professor Manfred von Thun set us a test. Newton, he pointed out, argued that everything either stayed still, or moved in a straight line at a uniform speed UNLESS ACTED ON BY ANOTHER FORCE. So, to take a simple example, if something is moving but slowing down, then we need an idea such a ‘friction’ to explain what is happening. That is Newton 101.
Professor von Thun, who had a thick German accent and had one of those beards with no moustache, both of which gave him an air of gravitas, had his own theory. Everything in the universe moved in a figure 8. If something was not moving in a figure 8, a force was acting on it, for instance ‘griction’. Prove me wrong, said Manfred von Thun.
Of course, one can’t. If you pointed to any object that wasn’t travelling in a figure 8, Manfred von Thun could invent – I mean identify – a force that was stopping it. His theory was as sound as that of Newton. Why was Newton’s better? Not by any truth test. It was better because it was simpler, which made it more useful. ‘Friction’ is as invented as ‘griction’ (or ‘gravity’), but it describes the world more elegantly, and so is to be preferred in a world where elegant solutions are generally better for practical sense.
Now, I’m a big believer in science – I rely on it when I drive a car, go to the doctor, or fly to the moon. I also think that the big bang and evolution are elegant, coherent and useful ways of understanding how I came to exist, although you may, of course, have other explanations you find
more elegant, coherent and useful (or explanations that are none of these things, you daredevil you).
But while science (be it physics, biology, chemistry, evolutionary theory etc.) is elegant, coherent and useful in saying what I am and why I am, it does not say how it is to actually be me. Nor does economics. Psychology has a stab at it, as does religion. You can add your own. But for me, it is literature that comes closest to capturing the phenomenon of being human.
Every person is a unique event, and has the right to describe itself, how it exists in the world, what it is like to be itself. Its loves, hates, tastes and experiences. What literature (and the other arts) do, for reasons that are at times baffling, is find a form to describe these things in a way that both retains their uniqueness and makes them universal. There are endless theories on how it goes about this but in the end it’s the thing itself that matters. For some reason ‘playing with dolls’ as I sometimes describe my own writing, produces truths about being human that no other activity does.
So, why do I write? For money, sometimes. Because I love books, definitely. But finally, as an act of resistance. There are a lot of narratives out there that are competing to tell humans what they are, and what they should value. Again and again, for me, they are either inadequate or just plain wrong. And, of course, a lot of them are wilfully wrong, to exert power and limit possibilities. In order to ensure that these narratives are not the only ones out there, and that the ways of seeing that we have access to are not simply those that continue to dominate, I keep playing with dolls. We are still reading Homer 2500 years after the poems were composed. Who the rulers of the time were is lost to us.
Why do you write?
Peter Salmon is an Australian writer and editor living in the UK. His first novel, The Coffee Story (Sceptre, 2011), was a New Statesman Book of the Year. He has written frequently for TV and radio, and for broadsheets including the Guardian and the Sydney Review of Books.