To express yourself needs a reason, but expressing yourself is the reason.
That was the first blog post of Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and often-jailed dissident. He wrote that sentence as he was first learning to type and had little experience of writing.
I am thoroughly in agreement with Weiwei. Writing is all about expressing yourself. When I read something or when an idea comes to mind, the first thing I want to do is write something about it. Writing clarifies and completes the notion in a way that speaking doesn’t. It is also a catalyst for other ideas and making contact with the snippets that are hidden away in the folders of my laptop..
“Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one tamped with your personality.” Robert Darton
I find my voice in writing, not speaking. It is all in the fingers, not the vocal chords. How strange. I don’t know what it is called. But I get into this mood while writing and it stays with me until the end. Usually it is when I write in the third person, present or past tense. This separates the words from myself and, thereby, makes them less personal. It is a kind of ironic, jesting, voice that I sometimes find in the works of Coetzee.
There are times when I am reading a novel or story when I fall into its mood and its words and the way they are put together so that I begin to think and write like the people in the story. I mimic them in both spirit and tone. I think about my life from their perspective and take on their ways of expressing it.
This happened to me while reading Joshua Ferris’s The Unnamed and I did nothing to push it away. The same happened recently in reading some of the stories in Don DeLillo’s recent The Angel Esmeralda.
It is how the characters in a film sometimes affect me. I come out of the theater and I am one of them. It is a strange experience and while it never lasts long after a film, it tends to last quite a bit longer while reading a book, especially a lengthy one.
Is this how we are influenced by the arts? Do their effects linger even when we aren’t aware of them? Perhaps we become the people in the book or the film in ways that are subtle and beyond our comprehension.
Ideas I didn’t know I had within me emerge when I’m writing. They arrive in the writing, not before. The words simply appear on the page. Afterwards, I think, that cannot be me. Hemingway described the experience. "The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it."
For me it all boils down to composing a sensible, worthwhile page or so once in a while. The pleasure is being able to do that. It is like working out; writing gives me a setting to work out my mind.
I used to think that I write primarily for myself, to try to compose something clearly and well thought out, even smart. I thought I didn’t have any readers in mind, as few as there are, but only to meet whatever standard I set for myself.
But now I wonder. Maybe I’m writing to converse, to make contact with another person even though the person is never there or replies. Nicole Krauss wrote, "I wanted to describe the world, because to live in an undescribed world was too lonely."
Maybe that’s what I’m doing too, nowhere near as well as Krauss, but still because the world is a pretty lonely place.