In his essay, “Why I Write,” George Orwell identifies the following: 1. Sheer Egoism (“desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc”), 2. Aesthetic enthusiasm (“perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their arrangement”) 3. Historical impulse (“desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity”), and 4. Political purpose (“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”). Knowing that I would be writing this essay, I tried to improve upon this list, but to no success. There is only one conceivable addition, approaching the matter as a male heterosexual writer: 5. To bed women.
It happens that in this respect, if not in others, I did have some moderate recompense for my writerly efforts. Also, it was a poem, published in a university journal, which led to the meeting of the woman with whom I have spent the last fifteen years. Still, I would say that in my case numbers 1 and 2 capture the bulk of my motives. I am probably typical among writers, but I do find that I have within me a concern for the useless and vain business of being remembered after death. I don’t know why I have this concern, and I wish I could be free, but I am probably stuck with it, so that my only recourse is to bat it aside whenever it occurs. As for aesthetic enthusiasm, I know fully what Orwell means when he writes of the “desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.” It interests me that the desire to share an experience and the desire to have one’s posthumous words live on “in the guts of the living” (to paraphrase Auden) seem somehow related. These observations go a good way toward explaining why I write. Numbers 3 and 4 (and 5) came into force much later.
Far from having historical or political purpose, my earliest writing was enthusiastically lowbrow. I recall a Greek-styled tragedy I wrote as a child, in which I enlisted the help of the Jimmerson children, who lived a couple doors away. The revenge-driven plot was an excuse to unleash a flood of theatrical blood and gore, my role consisting mostly of stabbing people. In fact, the main interest in most of my writing, at this time, was violence. One exception is a bad poem, “I Hate Winter,” that I wrote at nine and which was published a year later in the Toronto Sun, in 1976. I remember well, upon opening the tabloid sheets, the thrill of seeing my name in print and understanding that my words had been, and would for a time continue to be, before many eyes. This feeling, and not the calling of Art, drove me.
I also at a young age took interest in anything related to writing: pencils, pens, paper, notebooks, ink, and so forth. When I say “took interest,” I mean that I would linger in stationery stores, trying to choose a pen (or whatever it was), in some instances until it happened that an adult shopper would ask me if I needed help. I remember being extremely embarrassed by this, because I sensed early on that I was unusual. When I was twelve or so, I became obsessed with typewriters and typesetting, and by the time I was fifteen I had a Gestetner and was running from my bedroom a small print shop. (My mother had obtained the Gestetner at great effort and cost, and this show of support is something I shall never forget.) This was a period during which I produced magazines for sale in my school. It began as a mere case of writing for the selfish pleasure of it, and ended with my growing awareness of the need to find something to write about.
The first few years of my life I spent a good deal of time alone, and even came to prefer my own company. I was a quiet, introverted child. When I entered school, these personality traits were seen by some as an indication of weakness, and I quickly became familiar with the business of bullying. I would eventually learn that my intelligence and skill at language could be used effectively as hurtful weapons, and of course realizing this I took full advantage. I had found another use of language, exploiting the insecurities of my fellow creatures. Most of my chosen targets I think deserved what they got, but I attacked with imperfect discretion. At times I stood up to bullies and at others I bullied. Stupidly and ironically, in the latter case I targeted people like myself, artistic and introverted. In my later teens, I resolved to use the weapon of language to combat the bullies and never to be among them. It would be a good many years before I took to the political essay and the polemic, but take to them I did, and with great vigour.
In the meantime I had graduated from the world of the schoolyard bully to the adult world of the political, economic, and military varieties. These were the years of Reaganism, trickle down, the death squad, and the Disappeared. I read more and more political writing, discovering people such as Noam Chomsky and a very young Orwellian-styled Socialist named Christopher Hitchens. Now in university, I was intoxicated by the prospect, my world having expanded greatly and every day being introduced to new authors. I wrote very little at this time, occupied as I was both with my required and elective reading. Most of my own writing at this point consisted of note-taking, journaling, and academic essays. My writing took a leap in the years 1986-1988, largely as a result of my studying at Brock University under Professors Michael Hornyansky and Marilyn Rose, and again around 1994-1996, when I was a teaching assistant at Queen’s University, in Kingston. For a time as a graduate student I was quite poor, and the economic prospects generally were dismal. These factors, coupled with the memory of Ronald Reagan, generated within me a hatred of the rich as well as of “the Establishment” in general. I equated the ruling class with the bullies I had known as a child, and by this means arrived as a partisan to the Socialist-Democrat ideology.
My aim here is not toward elucidating my political outlook, which in any case has always been, I believe, “of the Left.” I mention politics first because they matter to me, but second to suggest the many directions in which an author may go, while all the while serving his initial motivations, the egoism and so on mentioned at the top of this essay. There is no use in pretending that selfish considerations and impulses can be extirpated from one’s inner life, no matter how ostensibly high-minded the cause. At least in my own case, I have found upon careful reflection that even when I was engaged in a political battle, concerns such as literature, aesthetics, and getting my name into print were on my mind. Circumstance dictated that I would write about political and economic matters, but at bottom I had not changed much since the days of my childhood, where my feelings, impulses, and appetites were concerned.
In the mid 1990s I started yet another publication, with author and my good friend, Adrian M. Kelly. We called this publication ASH, which stood for Arts, Sciences, and Humanities. Of this project and period I have fond and vivid memories. For some years the magazine was sold in bookstores throughout Canada and in the United States, and we managed also to get copies into libraries and video stores and such. One of my life’s greatest pleasures has been to have had the opportunity to introduce other, younger writers to an audience. I ought not to mislead anyone about the fact that ASH was a small publication with a limited audience, but it remains one of my proudest accomplishments. Its eventual demise corresponded with the end of my University career and my needful entrance into the workforce, where I became for the most part a ghost writer. Producing articles and speeches in the voices and under the names of others, I would write far more than I ever had under my own name, learning in the process to efface myself somewhat. Among this output would be work that contributed to, I would later be told to my surprise, one of the foremost public issues of the past ten years.
2 thoughts on “The Compulsion to Write (pt. 2)”
I remember the ASH days fondly – the readings, meeting other young Canadian poets, hanging out at the grad club. I look forward to reading your book in 2013. Am very glad you’re writing it.
I remember a quiet, introverted young man delivering a copy of “The City” to my house in Crescent Park. it was unlike anything I had ever read. Being the granddaughter of an English teacher, I had (and still do), a voracious appetite for reading. I was enthralled of the story of a young boy who ate too many peaches and had diarrhea. Obviously, I was aware of this side effect of too many peaches, but someone actually wrote about it, and I knew him!! I spoke to the distribution centre (Wayne’s house), and had back copies delivered as well. Promptly, I recall.
Yes Wayne, you had it in you from way back. You have a unique talent and equally unique audience. I am proud to have known you and consider myself one of your earliest fans (and former subscriber).
Now that I am obviously older, I respect the different viewpoints that are expressed and available to be read and enjoyed.
Keep up the good work my friend from long ago!
Kim Whittingham Schutt