Elisa Gabbert on why writers write
Twitter shines at surfacing what I need, when I need it, in this case Elisa Gabbert’s 2022 book list, within which she links to her Paris Review essay, Why Write?
That essay sings to me. Gabbert says that Joan Didion wrote fiction to find out what the pictures in her mind meant, and she give several examples of other famous writers who start their stories with an image, or a dream, and chase it down in words, including Vladimir Nabokov, Martin Amis and William Faulkner. It can feel cleansing to get the image onto paper, and the act of writing is often a painful test of endurance.
Jean Rhys only wrote when she was unhappy. George Orwell wrote for the political good. Dorothy Parker was particularly happy when writing, but loathed the business of being a writer. The rewards of writing, meagre as they are, are doled out indiscriminately, and she says no writer deserves anything more than any other.
One passage stood out to me, on the periods of not-writing between longer works:
Tillie Olsen, in her 1965 essay “Silences,” called the not-writing that has to happen sometimes—“what Keats called agonie ennuyeuse (the tedious agony)”—instead “natural silences,” or “necessary time for renewal, lying fallow, gestation.” Breaks or blocks, times when the author has nothing to say or can only repeat themselves, are the opposite of “the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot.” The unnatural silence of writers is suppression of the glimmer. This is Melville who, in Olsen’s words, was “damned by dollars into a Customs House job; to have only weary evenings and Sundays left for writing.” And likewise Hardy, who stopped writing novels after “the Victorian vileness to his Jude the Obscure,” Olsen writes, though he lived another thirty years—thirty years gone, gone as that novel in the apple tree. She quotes a line from his poem “The Missed Train”: “Less and less shrink the visions then vast in me.” And this same fate came to Olsen herself, who wrote what she wrote in “snatches of time” between jobs and motherhood, until “there came a time when this triple life was no longer possible. The fifteen hours of daily realities became too much distraction for the writing.” I read Olsen’s essay during a period in my life when stress from my day job, among other sources, was making it especially difficult to write. I didn’t have the energy to do both jobs well, but I couldn’t choose between them, so I did both badly. Like Olsen, I’d lost “craziness of endurance.”
She concludes that the reason her default state is writing is because it helps her “do better thinking”, and when she’s thinking well, she has more chance of writing…
…that rare, rare sentence or paragraph that feels exactly right, only in the sense that I found the exact right sequence of words and punctuation to express my own thought—the grammar in the thought. That rightness feels so good, like sinking an unlikely shot in pool. The ball is away and apart from you, but you feel it in your body, the knowledge of causation. Never mind luck or skill or free will, you caused that effect—you’re alive!
She writes for the pleasure of solving a puzzle, but a puzzle that only she knows of, and in finding a pleasing solution, finds joy in sensing her own unique spark in the universe.
Read the essay in full at The Paris Review.