Writing has felt especially difficult lately. The older I get and the more I learn about the world, the more responsibility I feel as a writer to use my skill for public good. Each time I sit down at my computer, I wonder, what’s the point of this? What am I contributing to society, by writing about my life? Why do I write, anyway? More often than not, I come out of these sessions with a whole lot of anxiety and a blank page. Turns out, the pressure to change the world within the margins of a Microsoft Word document is rather…daunting.
In his famous essay, “Why I Write,” George Orwell (known for Animal Farm and 1984—admittedly, books I still haven’t read) outlines what he believes to be the four primary motives for writing: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. It is this final motive, political purpose, that I’m reckoning with, one which Orwell describes as follows:
“Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”
A lot of people have a knee-jerk reaction to the word “political.” Politics? Oh, I’m not into politics. I didn’t used to think of my writing as political. Political writing, as we typically think of it, focuses heavily on election cycles and politicians. But if we broaden our understanding of what is political to include the dynamics of race and class, gender and sexuality, capitalism, ableism, and how they shape our everyday lives—is anything truly apolitical?
After four years of studying literature in college, I learned that you could muster a political analysis from pretty much anything. It was unclear whether we English majors unveiled or imposed this meaning. But that didn’t really matter. A reader may find such meaning in your words, intended or not. Not to mention, the choice to avoid politics is a political choice. (As Orwell writes, “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”)
By default, most works by people from marginalized communities are read through a political lens. We see this with antiracist reading lists, a cornerstone of social media “activism.” The authors on these lists are treated as representatives of their race, and their stories, no matter how fictional or personal, are consumed as the experiences of a people. I believe these lists are made with good intentions, and they do boost the authors’ visibility. However, these lists are a reminder that we, again and again, expect writers of color to double as educators, to carry the responsibility of saving us all, to write with a political purpose. Unsurprisingly, we don’t hold white writers to the same standard.
Regardless of what people expect me to write, I want to at least try to make a difference.
But…how can I make a difference when I can’t seem to get the words out?
After one too many fruitless writing sessions, I paused and considered: Maybe I’m approaching this all wrong. There must be a way to do good with my writing without feeling the weight of the entire world on my pen. Then, I remembered that, as presented in “Why I Write,” there are several motives that move us to write, all at once. They coexist.
No doubt “political purpose” and “historical impulse” sound far more noble than “sheer egoism” or “aesthetic enthusiasm.” Yet, I’d rejected egoism and aesthetics so fiercely, fearful that I’d become too self-involved or too surface-level, that I’d forgotten how 1) writing for self-exploration is completely worthwhile, and 2) it’s more than okay to write for the fun of it. It’s perfectly natural to start with the self, to use one’s personal experiences to make sense of the world. All stories, including stories that tackle big, meaty issues, must have a point of view. After all, how can we expect to change the world if we don’t understand our place in it? And you know what? Life is too damn short to deny ourselves the pleasure of creating and admiring beauty, whatever that may mean to each of us.
We don’t need to address the whole world every time we uncap our pen. We can start with our world, our communities, our families; we can examine what we feel, observe, and experience in our daily lives, and then work outward from there. At the end of the day, the goal is to write with intention, to challenge ourselves to acknowledge the problems we see—to name them, understand them, and ultimately, challenge them—one word at a time.