27 April 2017

Why I write

Photo: Michael Baumann (2016)

Someone recently asked me why I write. It is a good question(1).

In 1946 George Orwell wrote a short essay to answer it(2). He proposed "four great motives for writing" that exist in every writer -- sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose.

Where do I stand?

I am an only child and an introvert by nature and by nurture(3). Given a choice between being with people and being alone (with my lovely wife), I can think of no situation where I would choose people. Consequently, I have little need for external recognition, and that is what Orwell's "sheer egoism" really is(4). I also have no desire to tell other people what to think, to push a "political purpose".

Aesthetics, on the other hand, is important to me. Not necessarily phonetic aesthetics, but the aesthetics of a good story or a good argument(5). There is beauty in having formulated a thought in clear and concise language. An expression with no uncertain meaning, a sentence with no unnecessary words, a paragraph with no unnecessary sentences(6).

I believe my strongest Orwellian motive by far is "historical impulse": I write to make sense of reality. I write to clarify my own thoughts to myself. I write to examine my own personality(7). But to be sure: Although writing brings me great joy, good writing is hard work, and even the most disciplined amongst us often fail(8).

But if I am writing for myself, why do I publish?

Publishing, especially publishing with no editor and no peer review, enforces the discipline to be concise and to finish a thought. It also enforces intellectual rigour with no shortcuts in the argument. Moreover, because I mostly write on weekends and always post on Thursdays, publishing enforces a certain patience, which I have come to enjoy.

My readers tell me that they like what they read. They say it makes them think. As an intellectual this pleases me, for I do want to make people think -- think before they speak, think before they act, think before they vote.

Maybe, after all, I am not writing solely for myself. Maybe the absence of political purpose is a political purpose in itself.


(1) I was a terrible writer until I was twenty, and a bad writer until I was forty. My school-day writings shall only be remembered by this abomination: "And they couldn't find his damned legs." I stole it from First Blood. The movie, not the book. My late apologies to Dr. Brunhilde Ulamec, my Grade 12 German teacher.
(2) George Orwell (1946), Why I write: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0300011h.html#part47 (Accessed: 27 Apr 2017)
(3) In a society that lacks civility as ours does, introversion is a form of retreat.
(4) Compare the pitiful number of clicks even my most popular writings receive to the number thumbs-ups of even the tritest piece from LinkedIn-fluencers. If ostentation is my goal, I have failed miserably.
(5) The boldest first sentence I ever read in a novel comes from Anthony Burgess (1980), Earthly Powers: "It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me." The finest logical argument I ever read comes from Ludwig Wittgenstein (1922), Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (http://www.kfs.org/jonathan/witt/ten.html (Accessed: 27 Apr 2017)): Proposition "5.6 The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
(6) William Shrunk Jr. and E.B. White (1979), The Elements of Style (Fourth Edition): Rule 17. Omit needless words.
(7) Socrates's words in Plato (ca. 399 B.C.E.), Apology: "[T]he unexamined life is not worth living."
(8) To paraphrase Blaise Pascal (1656): "I wrote you a long letter, because I didn't have time to write a short one." If I am writing a 500-word piece, and it doesn't take me at least two whole days, I am not working hard.