Why write?

Mark Edmundson

What’s the difference between writers and journalists? Journalists write to inform the public about what’s happening in the world. Writers can write about themselves and imaginary worlds. I was reminded of the difference while reading the book, Why Write?

The author, Mark Edmundson, does not contrast writers and journalists. But he could be alluding to journalists when he talks about writers who “write to learn something”. They are sociable, equally at home with others, gathering material, and alone, writing, at their desks, he says.

That makes them different from other writers.

Writers have to be alone to practise their craft. “The first few days of being alone as a writer are tough,” says Edmundson. “But you want to know yourself, you want to strengthen your mind, you want to learn to remember… And so you begin the discipline of being alone, which ends up in time being something you need.” “I am addicted to being alone,” he adds.

About the author, Mark Edmundson

Mark Edmundson is more than qualified to write Why Write? He is a writer and a professor in the English department of the University of Virginia.

His answer to the question, “Why write?” Chapters that have headings like these: To Catch a Dream, To Make Some Money, To Strengthen the Mind, To Grow, To Learn Something, To Remember, etc. That may not be saying anything new. But you may still enjoy reading this book. For the author writes about his own experiences as a writer and recalls the lives of writers like Keats, Whitman and Virginia Woolf.

Edmundson humorously recalls how he tried to imitate the writer Hunter Thompson as a young man. Good writers borrow, great writers steal, he says, quoting TS Eliot. Walt Whitman was framing two-room houses in Brooklyn, says Edmundson, when he began to write the entries in his notebook that would eventually become Leaves of Grass. Edmundson is steeped in literary lore and that adds to the pleasure of this book.

He has style. “A writer is her own Scheherazade,” he writes. He means the writer is a storyteller. But instead he calls the writer Scheherazade.

Edmundson is a writer. So he must be writing from experience when he notes, “In order to write, you have to think. You have to take what’s in your head and put it into coherent sentences.” “Writing can take the sloppy stream of consciousness and give it form and purpose,” he writes in the chapter To Strengthen the Mind.

Writers and journalists

Edmundson doesn’t think highly of writers who “write to learn something”.  “The writer who writes to learn something often doesn’t write all that well,” he says. “He hasn’t had time to metabolize his material, so he writes out of the front of his brain and not out of the feelings in his gut.”

Edmundson, we have to remember, is a professor of English who admires poets like Keats and novelists and essayists like Virginia Woolf. They are writers we love more for the emotions they arouse than for the information they provide. They are not writers who write to learn something new.

Edmundson refers to Christopher Hitchens while talking about writers who write to learn something. It was his reference to Christopher Hitchens that made me think he equated such writers with journalists.

“I loved Hitchens the journalist,” he writes. “When something of note happened, he was the one I wanted to read first. I just didn’t want to read it again the next day. Hitchens was a teacher and Hitchens was a student – glad to learn, glad to teach. But even in his memoir, you can’t say he wrote from the guts.”

I remember reading Hitchens’ memoir, Hitch -22. I read the paperback with the new foreword he wrote after being diagnosed with cancer. That’s what I remember about the book – that Hitchens knew he was dying.

Writers: Outsiders who get better with age?

“Writers don’t usually fit in,” says Edmundson. “The writer is often an outsider… He tends to think of himself as a loner…” I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s what Edmundson says – and, as a writer steeped in literature, he should know.

But he has some good news. ”Writers, real writers, get better as they age. And even if their work declines a little, they can stay strong, keep producing, and keep doing what they love. They aren’t like dust-binned CEOs… or wrinkled race-car drivers… No: writers stay in the game until nearly the end, and it is not uncommon for their work to get better as time passes.”

That’s looking on the bright side.

Not every writer admired by Edmundson died honoured and respected in ripe old age. Keats was only 25 years old when he died of tuberculosis. Virginia Woolf committed suicide. Oscar Wilde died in penury, his reputation shattered. Exiled in Paris, badly sick, looking around his shabby chamber, he said: “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.” These are moving words from an aesthete who loved the bright and the beautiful and couldn’t bear the dingy and the dowdy.

Bad things do happen to good writers. A writer’s life is not synonymous with fame, fortune and happiness. But writers will write, readers will read, life will go on.

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