How impossible it is to decide on a reason for writing. Why DO I write? Because it’s the only way I know to live. Another cliché: I’ve written for as long as I remember, a lonely child with only my mind for company. No books allowed! Not because I was banned from them, but because there was no sense in pursuing intellectual pursuits in a home where survival was the most basic of instincts.
There was no parental library, but there were public libraries and the school library, and the only thing that made sense then—and still does now, if not as a desire then at least out of habit, like a reflex—was to be sequestered in my own mind. My tiny self squirrelled away in a corner with stacks of books and stationery, worlds waiting to be discovered and told. Worlds that could be re-written and imagined. What if I was Claudia from The Babysitter’s Club? Or Harriet in Harriet The Spy? You could say that I wrote myself into existence, and even if my reality was bad and my brain was broken, at least there were realms I could escape to.
George Orwell, when asked why he wrote, articulated—among other reasons—that it was mostly to create ‘a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.’ James Salter insisted that all we did had to be recorded in pages, ‘or it was in danger of not existing, of never having been’. And in 1976, Joan Didion said that she wrote entirely to ‘find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.’
I write for all these reasons, and more. Writing remains a paradox, a trap, a delight and a salve. Is the inexpressible contained in the expressed? When I write, clarity reveals itself in a mind that often races a million miles a minute but has trouble sounding words aloud. I write to ask questions, to unknot doubts and to make sense of a universe that’s so rigid yet so amorphous. Our worlds and selves are such contradictions: why not try and pull apart the nebulous nature of those things—if not to distil them then at least to confirm that complexity is a truth.
More clichés abound. I can with absolute certainty say that writing saved my life. And it will continue to save me. My darkest moments always see me grappling with a sense of loss; a spiralling of the psyche that is so great and thick that the fog only lifts when it lifts, even if for a little while and only via temporary solutions—those that are like a band-aid over a gaping vortex. To see your subconscious reveal itself on the page, or to simply relish the absolute relief in destroying a mental blockage that was once very difficult to bear. Writing is one way to parse all the strangeness and neuroses I bear in my body, and how I can fully own my queerness.
I won’t be so gauche to say that writing is the ultimate healing force, but it helps. It’s not catharsis, because when will we ever truly free ourselves from our self-made shackles? There will always be questions, new epiphanies, suppressed corporealities and limitless plotlines. Sometimes, like what Durga Chew-Bose wrote in the opening to her essay collection Too Much and Not the Mood, ‘the best ideas outrun me.’ I’m really just trying to play catch up.
There are other motives, too. Ego, redemption, recognition, affirmation. To say that writers aren’t driven by ego is an outright lie, especially in the contemporary now where our selves are on display almost all of the time. Of course, there remains a very thin line as to what distinguishes the border between self-expression and literature, and what may be inward-looking may not necessarily be considered ‘good’. But, show me a writer with no ego and I’ll show you a prison with no guards.
At the same time, writing isn’t solipsistic. If I was only myself in this world there’d be no interesting writing at all. When I write, I often think about how much of me is made up of my surroundings, the books I’ve read, the people who have influenced me in my life: the thinkers, lovers, teachers and friends who have shaped my self in such a way that my writing can no longer be isolated from it all. I write to cite. I write to attribute. And I write to put together all these seemingly external elements to make up a tangible rhetoric that I can hoard, even if my selfhood isn’t fully visible in the equation. This can change later, but it’s a coherent record of right now—a piece in a puzzle that’s a satisfactory repose, illuminating the way for an evolving vision of a future-past that’s within my grasp, now.
Cher Tan is a critic and writer in Naarm, via Kaurna Yerta and Singapore. Her work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, Swampland, Westerly and Runway, among others. @mxcreant