‘Why I Write’

A transcription of a guest lecture given at the University of Bristol for the Liberal Arts module, Critical Writing in the Humanities.


I am a recent graduate from the Liberal Arts programme here at the University of Bristol. I majored in English Literature, and combined this with satellite study of Art History, History, and Theatre & Performance Studies. My study abroad was hosted by McGill University in Montréal.

I’d like to thank Dr Cleo Hanaway-Oakley for inviting me to speak to you all about my journey as a ‘writer’ and, failing that, I would like to explore how my relationship to writing has developed over the past few years. I’ll refer to both set readings through the course of the lecture: my article on Montréal, Cultural Memory and Leonard Cohen, as well as George Orwell’s ‘Why I Write.’ This is going to be less of a line of argument and more of a loose mosaic of thoughts. I’ve found putting together this lecture ironically quite difficult: to write about writing in any kind of universal or useful way has proven to be quite an abstract challenge. But hopefully you will find my experiences and perspectives helpful in reflecting on yourselves as writers, especially in the context of interdisciplinary academic practice.

To begin, let’s head back to the Renaissance, a quintessential starting point for most  Liberal Arts lectures. If I’m honest, I initially chose this 1456 artwork (shown above), ‘Dante and his World’ by Domenico di Mechelino, as the visual springboard for my lecture because I googled ‘pictures that have writing in it’ and this is was one of the first and most appropriately ‘Liberal Artsy’ of the google results. I also liked the colour of Dante’s robe, that iconic dusty millennial pink which I thought would make a nice aesthetic for my PowerPoint Presentation.

So although this artistic selection was seemingly random and essentially unthought-through, perhaps my choice of this image is actually symptomatic of my ‘style over substance’ tendency which often dominates my interest in visual culture and literary practice. I’ll like it if it looks or sounds good. In this respect, I share in George Orwell’s ‘aesthetic enthusiasm’, which he labels as the second of his four points explaining why he writes. I, too, simply enjoy the ‘Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story’, just as I simply appreciate the pleasure of two colours congregating together on a canvas (Orwell, 1953).

This preoccupation with sonic and stylistic elegance has meant that I’ve developed a pretty good vocabulary over the years, but sometimes my linguistic flamboyance has often been at risk of overpowering the clarity and content of the point I’m trying to make. It’s a habit that I’ve tried to reign in over the course of my university career. I’ve sought to tame my floweriness, so that my linguistic style and the content of my ideas can dialectically enhance one another, rather than cast a cloud over comprehension.

And yet, despite the initially superficial reasoning behind my choice of artistic backdrop, I do find that this painting actually rings with a range of the themes that I’ve been asked to  cover today. Even within its silence, Domenico di Michelino’s La commedia illumine Firenze (also known as ‘Dante and his World’) speaks volumes on the process and purpose of writing, on how one sees themselves as a writer, as well as on the relationship between a writer’s identity, their cultural context and how these factors are inherently bound to the work that a writer produces.

Domenico Di Michelino was a Florentine painter working during the Italian Renaissance. He was generally commissioned to paint Biblical scenes, but this painting was nevertheless his most famous work. It was painted in 1456, and I think epitomises the general cultural shift from biblical preoccupations to the establishment of the humanistic worldview which defined the mood of the Renaissance period, as well as the rise of the artist/writer as a secular cultural icon and independent genius, autonomous in their creativity rather than a slave to religious representation. At the very heart of the painting, we see Dante, the author of the Divine Comedy, the era-defining Italian poem of the late Middle Ages which tells the tale of a fictionalised Dante’s spiritual journey through Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, guided by his classical intellectual inspiration, Virgil. Just like the poem, the painting is also divided into different parts. To the left of Dante, Domenico Di Michelino brings the writer’s Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso into visual life. But on the right of Dante, we also see this writer’s city of Florence, which is illuminated by rays emanating from Dante’s held copy of the text itself.

So this painting doesn’t just represent the internal narrative of the Divine Comedy, but it’s also a tribute and commemoration to Dante himself. His centrality within this multifaceted canvas and the presence of the laurel wreath, a historical symbol of poetic success, illuminates his importance to the cultural legacy of Florence and to the 1400s Florentine community. Dante’s words and literary worlds, as the canvas portrays, are inextricably linked to the cultural vibrancy and identity of Florence.

To go on further about the role of the writer, I think this painting portrays writing as an architectural business. The writer is a constructor of worlds, realms which readers can enter, can dwell in, brought into the aura of another time and place that would otherwise be inaccessible, both in terms of the world which the writing builds (i.e. Dante’s journey), as well as the time period in which those words were written (i.e. 1300s, Italy). So the writer and their writing is a vessel through which a reader can travel, a kind of Tardis through both space and time.

Writing is also presented as a process of immortalisation. Dante will remain on the canvas for longer than his real heart was able to beat, just as his words will also transcend and persist through time. I believe there’s a real authoritative power running through the history of the written word, because of its capacity to endure the erosion of time. Theatre Studies and Cultural Memory scholar Diana Taylor theorises this very power, focusing primarily on the colonial conquest of the Americas. As archival tools of knowledge transmission, like literary texts (along with painting, documents, maps, letters, videos, films, CDs), work ‘across distance, over time and space’, Taylor claims that ‘the archival, from the beginning, sustains power’ (2003). Historically, writing has been wielded to sustain and impose dominant ideologies, as with the case of the colonial establishment of America, and to suppress other forms of knowledge, such as ephemeral indigenous oral traditions. So writing can certainly be an exploitative instrument, but it nevertheless holds the ability to maintain echoes of voices from another time and to upkeep the importance of their ideas, establishing historical continuity, cultural identity and heritage.

Equally, even within the endurance of the written word, Dante as a writer is also portrayed as a mirror of a very specific cultural frame, reflecting the values and concerns of Florence back onto itself. Up until this point, no painter before Domenico Di Michelino had ever represented Dante, Florence and the Divine Comedy all on the same canvas; we see one half of a fictional world, and the other half made up of Dante’s Florentine reality, inevitably connected and blurred by himself as mediating writer. Dante conceived the Divine Comedy following his exile from his native Florence during a time of factional turbulence, and the text is inevitably bound up in reflections and criticisms on the politics and ethics of his time and society. Real world and fictional world are collapsed.

When I write, I do sense the weight of my cultural and biographical context as I type or scribble whatever I’m thinking, and I don’t think there’s any way of escaping it. I think this contextual awareness informs my definition of creative ‘originality.’ What can be original if whatever we write or think has been shaped from the splattered mass of stuff that is our previous experience and existence? Can there be such a thing as newness in creation? Or is ‘newness’ in creation just a disguised combination and synthesis of the pre-existing past.

I just wanted to start with this painting as it teases out themes relating the politics and aesthetics of the written word and real world, things which Orwell grapples within his essay, a grappling which I will try to make sense of in relation to my own experience and journey as a writer.

Screenshot 2020-03-13 at 16.57.38I did a bit of casual research beforehand from my own friends, using the greatly respected research tool that is Instagram, to find out why they wrote. Here’s what they came up with:

‘To capture the golden nuggets of life I could forget and let pass by without appreciation’

This point ties back to the enduring power of the written word across time, which is able to  memorialise what would otherwise be fleeting experience, to capture and to hold those experiences in place for posterity.

Here, writing also acts as a means of externalising memory, taking you back to a particular time, to your particular thought patterns. I am currently thinking about which artistic form is more true in being able to capture one’s worldly experience: words or, say, photographs? The latter creates sensory snapshots, while perhaps we can say words create psychological snapshots of a specific moment, with its ability to articulate the fluid interiority of how you were feeling and thinking in the world, once upon a time.

‘Because it feels real’

Perhaps the act of writing your experience becomes a kind of scientific proof that you were feeling the way you were feeling, that you were thinking the way that you were thinking, subsequently giving yourself a sense of stable and continuous identity. To modify the maxim:  “I think therefore I write therefore I am.” When we frame our thoughts as language, we enter into what philosopher Martin Heidegger would call a ‘house of being.’ Expression through language gives us our identity in the world. Putting that language on paper sustains this identity, marks it, and makes it more material.

‘To make a decision’

Writing can act as a means of laying out your options, of exploring different terrains in draft form, constructing potential versions of the world you wish others to inhabit, before trying it out for the real deal.

‘To work something out when I feel overwhelmed by feelings, to structure my thoughts’

‘It helps me understand things better – whether that is myself (lol) or stuff in the wider world’

In both cases, writing is a process of distillation, clarification and cognition. Written language functions as a framework through which we can think freely and fluently, a way of taking slices out of the stream of existence and rearranging its stuff to create order from it all. Writing helps to navigate and understand the big, messy world around you.

My degree made me

Cynically tongue-and-cheek, but this remark does have something to say about the very western respect that endures for the written word, especially in academic contexts, and its neo-colonial authority over other (especially embodied) modes of expression, such as the spoken word, performance, art, and music. However, I believe that we can, and should, write and express with more than just words.

To know what I think

Again, this emphasises writing as a cognitive process, a means of understanding through the transformation of thoughts into language.

I’m gay

Though I’m still uncertain whether my friend was being facetious or profound (probably both), it’s nevertheless unwittingly insightful. If writing has been historically manipulated as a tool to sustain hegemonic power (in this context, heteronormativity), then the process and production of writing by a marginalised group is a political act of resistance which rebels against the status quo. The appropriation of the written word for marginalised identities, like the LGBTQ+ community, is part of the process of fighting for the validity of these identities, which have been overlooked by the cultural hegemony.

Bc I have too many opinions and feelings to sit still – if there’s a Conversation I want in

I use writing as a vehicle to transport my thoughts and emotions into a society that heavily relies on other people’s opinions

According to these contributions, to write for public consumption is a political act, allowing you to shape discussions in the wider world.

I don’t think I would be able to write if I just wrote

My personal desire to write derives from a need to understand as much of the world around me as possible. This means I have to be more than a writer if I want to write. I have to look and listen, travel and talk, I have to absorb music, politics, conversation. Just as language itself is an inherently social mechanism, made to create connections between people, my idea of writing is a social one, and an interdisciplinary one, a dynamic and ever-developing dialogue that I want to form with the world around me.

Screenshot 2020-03-13 at 17.24.38

I don’t think I’ve ever really been one of those people who has words pouring out of them and onto paper incessantly since they can remember. I have to work at my words. I wrote only very mediocre poems for peripheral village shows in the depths of Devon when I was younger, sometimes I may have earned a rosette for my efforts and nascent abilities. But I would only write when asked to really. I was much more interested in songs, and spoken language, theatre, drama and music: the more ephemeral, living forms of language.

But I eventually grew tired of actors taking on the words/worlds of other characters, being who they weren’t. At the moment, I really only feel comfortable in writing with my own voice, or at least my idea of my own voice. Nevertheless,  my more performative and musical origins have played a big role in shaping my writing style today, as I like my words to have rhythm and a sense of lyricism. I like words to chime and flow and, like Orwell, I want to see what happens aesthetically when words rub up against one another. I am by no means a poet, but I always like my prose to hold a poetic charm, a charge of energy to keep the pace pulsating.

My first proper attempt at writing was in the realm of theatre reviewing, but again I quickly started to get tired of different editor’s expectations of what a review should look or sound like, of the restrictions on what should and should not be included in order to evaluate art successfully. I found it too limiting and I didn’t like how my personal voice was muted so much. Again, I didn’t feel like I was speaking as myself, or even a performance of myself. It’s funny how critics like to take on a scientific guise of objectivity, as if you could possibly escape the subjectivity of your tastes, reactions and the pervasive influence of your biography.

I’ve also struggled with stylistic restrictions within the British education system, especially the very formulaic process of essay writing: Introduction, Point, Evidence, Evaluate, Repeat Thrice, Conclusion, Done. I could do it, but I found it a bit stifling. As we grow up, we are all expected to conform to a generic means of expression in essay writing, with very little room for “I” or personal flair, as it’s deemed unsophisticated.

(And as a footnote to this, I have this half-baked theory that academia has historically never really had a need for “I” within its discourse, because education was at first restricted to the gaze of the white privileged man, whose identity was always reflected in the dominant social system. Arguably then, there was no need to acknowledge the intricacies of one’s identity or to explore how your perspective has been shaped along lines of class, culture, race and gender. I have yet to think about this further.)

When I came to study Liberal Arts at University, I did feel that I was given more stylistic freedom in my writing, especially in being able to experiment with different kinds of voices: historical, philosophical and literary. I could push against the boundaries of singular disciplinary convention through interdisciplinary combination, and I hoped by then end of my degree to fuse them together into a kind of synthesis. But I still always worried, especially in my first few years here at Bristol, that combining my styles from across departments would inevitably leave me as an outcast in the particular field or subject I was studying. It’s hard to be interdisciplinary in a system that still favours specialism and insularity. Does a History essay or an English essay have to look like every History essay or English essay that came before? I found it hard to be innovative in my writing as the British education system still seems obsessed with disciplinary distinctions and structural conventions.

But then my year spent in Montréal really lifted the academic shackles of these restrictions. The ‘major and minor’ academic structure there is very normal, and so a variety of styles within a particular class would be welcomed. I also think the flexibility of learning permitted at McGill allowed for a vibrant variety of assessment formats, which would encourage creative and diverse approaches to your academic work. I was undertaking presentations, museum reviews, seminar leading, creative writing tasks, take-home exams, longer research projects, ongoing creative diaries. The freedom of embedded interdisciplinary education led to a kind of freedom of mind and liberated structure in terms of how your ideas could be expressed. I was particularly lucky to have professors who encouraged a greater level of creativity and personalism in my academic work.

Screenshot 2020-03-13 at 20.48.45This quote is taken from the class policy of a particularly inspirational professor. I really embraced this period of experimentation, and pushed the boundaries of what I wanted to express and how I wanted to express it through writing. I think my time in Montreal is responsible for the main trends that can be read in my style now: a cross-genre blending of cultural analysis framed within a personal and creative tone.

So now you have a very loose overview of my thoughts and background with writing. I think it would be good to turn to Orwell’s four points from ‘Why I Write’, and I’ll set myself against them. I’ll compare both mine and Orwell’s perspective, while updating his points to suit our modern, technology-drenched day, where the tools and mechanisms of being a writer have become democratised by the endless space of the internet, waiting to be crammed with tweets, captions and perspectives of anyone who feels like piping up.

Screenshot 2020-03-13 at 20.52.37

Albeit reluctantly, I think I do relate to this point. I’ve always enjoyed attention, couldn’t honestly define myself as an introvert. I like performing for people and making people laugh. I like it when others are interested in what I have to say, and so I must inevitably think I have something worth saying, which is an inherently egotistical quality.

But I don’t think this mindset is atypical for my generation. In fact, I think Orwell’s identified writerly egotism is no longer reserved for the ‘top crust of humanity’ (of which he includes writers, scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen), especially in light of technological advances.

In generation y/z’s current cultural context, we are constantly selling and performing our online identities, presenting the wares of our perspectives, turning our lives into narratives for online consumption in the hope we’ll receive validation in the form of likes, short-lived appreciation, retweets, shares, views, all of which is now a measure of personal, as well as professional success. The age of social media is populated by self-declared writers and narrative-makers. It is natural for most people of our age to think their views deserve to be heard and acknowledged by the masses; we live in an inherently egotistical time.

Orwell’s point here also places emphasis on the finished product of writing as a means of memorialisation, mark-making, an assertion of one’s legacy. While the written product might act as a bid for attention, for praise, I also see my own process as quite a singular and meditative one; I always feel my brain working and churning in the same way you feel your body pushing itself when you exercise. I write to be heard and to be enjoyed by others, sure, but I also write to keep my brain active and exercised for the benefit of my mental well-being.

Screenshot 2020-03-13 at 20.53.12

As I said before, I definitely do understand Orwell’s ‘Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.’ I have always wanted to be one of those writers who has a recognisable style, a way of seeing and expressing that truly belongs to them.

But, if I’m honest, I’m consider my myself a magpie when it comes to creating my own literary aesthetic. I read a lot, so I tend to cherry pick the elements of different author’s styles that I like the most, mashing it all up into something seemingly original.

To take an example, I’m really interested in the form of creative nonfiction at the moment. I want to emulate writers like Maggie Nelson, who blends the personal, the political, the academic and the social with both analytical and creative flair. My piece on Montréal you read this week is my first try at this kind of style, attempting to weave together academic theory into a descriptive meditation on the geographical and memory-infused landscape of Montreal  in order to critically illuminate my experience of the city; I try to employ lyrical language within a kind of structural montage, a wave of succeeding snapshots/tableaus, not only to create a collage of the multifaceted, all-encompassing nature of Montréal’s beauty and Cohen’s legacy, but also to reflect the city’s social complexity and the political tension between settler and indigenous cultural memory.

So I suppose my aesthetic enthusiasm is linked to where I am, what I’m reading, and generally my cultural influences at a particular time. Perhaps I’ll settle into a particular style as I get older, but just as language itself evolves over time and life, as will my creative tastes and styles of expression.

Screenshot 2020-03-13 at 20.56.51

I think this third point harmonises nicely with the sentiments of my friends; writing has the capacity ‘To capture the golden nuggets of life’. Orwell agrees that writing is a means of distilling the passing of time into something comprehensible for future reflection and scrutiny for those who might try to look back and understand what was really going on, satisfying our historical impulse to comprehend where we came from to know where we are going.

Although I’m not so sure whether I share the same desire as Orwell ‘to see things as they are;’ I see this factor as an impossibility. I will always admit to my subjective perspective, which for me always hinders total historical clarity and truth (sorry historians). In my writing, I am less interested in historical clarity, and more concerned with engaging with subjective realities, both my own and that of others, trying to achieve a sense of empathy, or at least a sensitive sympathy. Using the written word for these ends constitutes a radical act of understanding, which can be transformative to our globalised world in creating kind and cohesive communities. Writing can be a form of healing and of building bridges over social divides.

Screenshot 2020-03-13 at 20.57.31

I agree with Orwell that ‘no book is genuinely free from political bias.’ Your worldview is inevitably influenced by your political context, and the very nature of your existence in that context is an inherently political thing. Your race, gender, socioeconomic stability will shape your perception of the world around you, will shape how you are held in that world and how you process that world into words. I thought my piece on Montréal was relatively free of politics. I thought I was just trying to capture an experience of Leonard Cohen’s legacy. But, as we see, the end of the piece naturally takes a political turn, drawing a wider link between Montréal’s idolatry of Cohen’s settler legacy and the ongoing suppression of the indigenous voice, especially in terms of the distinct lack of memorialisation for missing and murdered native women across Canada. This relationship was a sobering realisation, especially coming from a British political context that suppresses its colonial past. I hope that, in political terms, the article encourages people to hear, to think through and to feel narratives that are being overlooked due to contexts of conflict. In this particular case, the ongoing conflict that is structural colonialism.

In a similar vein, I have also recently written about my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I attended a summer school on the war, genocide and BiH’s post-conflict politics. This piece again deployed a combination of creative description and critical analysis to  capture the memories and feelings of prisoners of war that are being suppressed by the state in contemporary Bosnia.

I have also just finished a written piece reflecting on work I do with a charity in Gaza, The Hands Up Project, where I teach English through online storytelling to Palestinian students, helping their voices to be heard globally, even when most of the world refuses to listen.

Screenshot 2020-03-23 at 17.39.40So where do I go from here? I think my training in Liberal Arts has encouraged me to keep looking, keep thinking and keep writing about the world with a kaleidoscopic perspective; I hope that my variegated interests will allow my writing to stay fresh and reflect the vibrancy of the world I find around me. My writing develops and transforms  depending on the cultural context in which I find myself, so I hope travelling and teaching will be a big part of how my writing voice develops over the next few years.

But in the longer term, I think I want to use my writing to continue to bridge the sphere of academia, media and charity sector, communicating ideas in creative and comprehensible ways for public understanding and engagement, resisting the elitist language often reserved for the academy.

I would also like to experiment with different forms of writing and narrative. I’ve become particularly interested in oral histories and radio, as this media can materialise my desire to evoke feeling, emotions and empathy through words; we think with our eyes and we feel with our ears. I would like to develop a practice which allows people to both think and feel, to feel while thinking and to think while feeling, whether that be in written, visual or audio format, or perhaps a combination of all these things.

And I think I’m starting my journey towards this ambition, as I have recently been appointed as a senior editor for an online platform called Liberal Arts: Thinking Now and Then, which is dedicated to sharing interdisciplinary research with the public, using short pieces, long pieces, video and audio; it was where the Montréal piece was originally published. We are always looking for more writers to get involved, and it would also be brilliant to have Bristol thinkers woven into our commissions. If anyone would like to get involved and develop their voices, then drop me an email at phoebe@liberalarts.org.

I think I can weakly conclude that writing is many, many things; it’s a process that will be entirely unique to the individual at hand, so what I’ve said may not be of much use to you. Sometimes, it’s helpful just to hear another perspective, which is why writing in itself is important, I think. Just as Dante holds up his poem to Florence in our opening painting almost like a mirror, I think it’s vital for us to use our ability to write not to assert power over others, but to reflect the world back at itself, and to present new possibilities so that a better world can be constructed. It is only within this space of self-awareness, empathy and discovery that change can be brought about, where words can help to change worlds, and bring new worlds into being.

As walls and borders are threatened to be built between us, words and writing have the democratic capacity to look and stretch outwards across these gaps, enabling us to relate to one another within our differences, ultimately sharing the experience of simply being here on this funny planet.

To make such connections is all I really aim to do.

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