Why I Write

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How I begin: I sit down. I drink coffee, lots of coffee. I smoke cigarettes, lots of cigarettes. Back when I could still drink, I would drink vodka, lots of vodka — this on top of the coffee, to create a nicely psychotically buzzed yet insanely focused kind of vibe; drugs might be good for achieving this too, but I’ve never really done drugs. I do all of this for a while, and eventually, I start to write.

What I’m doing at first — when I sit down and stare blankly at the screen, with the coffee, and the cigarettes — is called “procrastinating,” and procrastinating, it seems to me, is based on fear.

99% of my time is spent procrastinating as compared to 1% of actual writing: a terrible ratio. We procrastinate because we’re afraid of doing something badly, or because we’re trying to avoid something onerous. Of course I’m trying to defend my own procrastination here, but it seems to me that if you’re not a little afraid when you sit down to write something, then you’re doing something wrong.

_____

I start to write because I’ve got a sentence stuck in my head. The rest of the essay is just an excuse to get to that sentence. Usually it’s either the first sentence or the last sentence… “I sit down” is not a great first sentence, but it was the sentence that got stuck in my head for this essay; it’s not clever, funny, or dramatic, but it at least has the advantage of being very, very simple.

Anyway, that’s how writing works, for me at least. Getting things stuck in my head and then trying to get them out of my head, the way that you try to get an annoying song out of your head.

Someday I will have to write a novel, because I have a wickedly awesome last sentence and last paragraph for a novel. The rest of the writing will be me trying to get to that one paragraph. For a long time, I had this phrase stuck in my head: “There is a world beyond this world; beneath this world, above it.” I wrote many, many essays, including this one, where I thought that I was going to use that phrase, but then didn’t end up using that phrase. As a result, I will still have to write something that uses it.

_____

I don’t write an essay because I think that lots of people will click on it, or because it will give me lots of “hits,” or because it will give me lots of Facebook shares. Most of the bad writing that I see is based on writing in this way. I’m not saying that I’m better, it just never occurs to me to write in this way, and I probably couldn’t do it if I tried.

The novelist John Barth was once a professor at a college in upstate New York. It was the 1960s. The student movement was in full swing at his college: riots, student protests, strikes, hippies fighting with cops, the college being shut down. A reporter asked John Barth what he thought of the protests. He said they were “important but not interesting,” which is how I feel about most things. And then John Barth went back to working on whatever novel he was working on. And looked at from the right point of view — which is of course my point of view — John Barth was right. Student protests are either going to end with the students being successful (5% chance), or the students not being successful (95%), and either way — how interesting is that? Not very interesting, because they’re both predictable.

The goal of writing is to avoid predictable things.

I think the point that Barth was trying to make is that Big Things are often too large and slippery and preordained, and thus not as interesting as the small human things that he tried to write about. Or at least, if that’s not his point, that’s my point.

_____

In-between that last sentence and this one, I have: drunk one non-alcoholic beer, drunk a little coffee, smoked one cigarette (although I wanted to smoke about twenty; somehow, mystifyingly, I can even procrastinate about smoking), found the above video, and wasted about an hour looking for the right picture to go at the top of this essay. Just thought that you would like to know.

Why write?

A professor once told me never to ask questions like “Why write?” in my writing. He said that it would be like if characters in a movie suddenly stared out at the viewer and said, “Hey, why are we even in this movie, anyway?” In other words, it would be shocking for a second, then annoying. You don’t pay your money to have to deal with questions like that.

Nonetheless…

Well, here’s a dumb story — which is probably where this essay will go off the rails. The other day, I was writing about an awful song that I heard at the mall. I heard the song and instantly loved it, while my girlfriend instantly hated it. It is a terrible song — but then, I have terrible taste in music. I always hope that my awesome taste in books and in movies balances out my awful taste in music, but that’s probably not the case.

In the song, the singer sings this: “All my life, I’ve been good/ but now, I’m thinking — what the hell.” This is bad writing — though keep in mind that I love the song and will probably listen to it five more times today.

As it happens, I know about the singer. She recently got divorced, and the song is about her enjoying her time as a divorced person and about her f-cking other dudes. This is what the song is about, and we’re meant to delight in the hypothetical liberating “girl power-ness” of her skankiness. Okay, whatever. The problem is that she’s such a terrible writer — such a terrible lyricist — that she can only sing in cliches.

All my life, I’ve been good.” Has she? Who among is us truly “good”? It’s a question for Aristotle or some other philosopher. But she doesn’t sound like such a great person, from the song. And she sings:

All I want is to mess around
And I don’t really care about
If you love me, if you hate me–
You can’t save me, baby, baby.

I don’t even know what this means, but it’s just a string of cliches. A cavalcade of cliches. She’s singing about how she’s a good person, but the song is about her acting like a bad person, but she’s saying that she doesn’t really care, but she sort of seems to care, and what’s happening is that her cliches are actually blocking her from thinking. Is what she’s doing — f-cking random guys — is that a good thing or a bad thing? It’s a tough question, it’s a question that I couldn’t necessarily answer, but it’s a question that she doesn’t even consider. Because if you can only think in cliches, then you’re just thinking in very well-worn grooves. You know how, if you get your car stuck in the mud or the snow, and you start spinning your wheels to get out, you just dig yourself in deeper and deeper? That’s what thinking in cliches is like.

And that’s why writing is important. Because good writing breaks free from cliches. As you’re writing, you’re learning. You’re forcing yourself to think independently of things that have come before.

_____

So I was writing about that song, and thinking about that singer saying that she was “good,” and also I was thinking about sitting in bars, listening to crappy songs, which I do a lot of, even though I don’t drink anymore, and then I started thinking about the famous poem by W.H. Auden. Specifically the part that goes like this:

Faces along the bar 
Cling to their average day: 
The lights must never go out, 
The music must always play, 
All the conventions conspire 
To make this fort assume 
The furniture of home; 
Lest we should see where we are, 
Lost in a haunted wood, 
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good. 

This is, of course, dark, though “dark” is an insufficient and lame summation of what the poem is actually saying. But let’s just call it “dark” as shorthand. And it’s okay that it’s “dark.” Because it’s the job of good writing to take you to dark places, to places where you don’t necessarily want to go. …The job of good writing is to say what hasn’t been said before.

And if we apply the Auden poem to the song by Avril Lavigne — thereby marking the first time that anyone has ever compared those two people — then we see the problem with the song by Avril Lavigne. She’s using cliches, commonplaces, oft-repeated things, to cling to her average day. But by doing this, she’s not seeing where she really is: she’s using hackneyed language to hide from herself; to hide the fact that she’s a divorced woman who’s feeling lonely and unsure about what she’s doing with her life. If you can be honest with your language, then you can be honest in your life, and that’s also why writing is important.

My favorite writer ever declared that he was “at war against cliche.” And so, let us have a war on cliche, which does nothing but block us from real thought. The point of bad writing is to keep you from having to think about anything new. To keep you from having to change, which I totally understand; I hate change as much as the next guy. And hey, I love that Avril Lavigne song as much as the next guy, or girl. But I’m not really thinking when I’m listening to it.

Cliches are conventions, and all the conventions conspire to make this fort assume the furniture of home. Lest we should see where we are. Lost in a haunted wood. Children afraid of the night. Who have never been happy or good. …Or maybe that’s not where we are — maybe we’re in a place that’s not that bad, but we are somewhere, and to learn where we are, we have to be precise. Avoid slippery language. Be exact. Try to figure out exactly where you are and where we are.

_____

Sometimes. this all feels hopeless; sometimes I feel hopeless. Hopeless in the face of overwhelming dumbness and apathy. Why be honest, why try to write well, why try to produce anything in the face of cliche, in the face of all these dumb people? Dumbness rules and always has and always will, and so why work so hard trying to produce something original, when most people don’t even care to begin with?

But it’s not all hopeless and Auden even says so. Though it all may seem hopeless and interminable, an endless struggle that will never be won, there is hope. The poet says so. I’ll just close with the end of the poem, and then we’ll say goodbye, with no clever ending from me. I think it’s better that way. …And so there is hope. Hopefully there is hope. And hopefully that hope lies within the freedom that art creates:

Defenseless under the night 
Our world in stupor lies; 
Yet, dotted everywhere, 
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just 
Exchange their messages; 
May I, composed like them 
Of Eros and of dust, 
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair, 
Show an affirming flame.  TC mark

image – Shutterstock

More From Thought Catalog

  • GOATBOY

    “I sit down. I drink coffee, lots of coffee. I smoke cigarettes, lots of cigarettes.”

    “If I think something that’s a cliche, I keep it to myself.”

    #fail

    • http://www.facebook.com/oliveramiller Oliver Miller

      I was trying to talk something I do that’s cliched, in order to use it as a set-up. Like, as a random example — and not to get too pretentious here — Yeats writes “the woods are in their autumn beauty,” and he writes that because it’s a cliche. He’s saying something boring so that he can surprise you with something more interesting later on. I like that someone who writes “#fail” would even complain about this.

      • GOATBOY

        “The trees are in their autumn beauty” is not a cliche. It is a descriptive statement in simple prose, like “the woodland paths are dry” or “now they drift on the still water”. The poem delights–and surprises–not by any particularly perfect line but as a whole object, a complete image. And do you honestly read that first line and think “oh, how boring”? Like Yeats should have written “The trees are red and gold as fuck” or something. Actually, that sounds more like Robert Frost.

        In any case, your essay does not “surprise […] with something more interesting later on.” It’s a question (why do I write?) followed by a couple thousand words that refuse to engage in an answer. I read the whole piece and I still don’t know why you write, Oliver Miller. You offer a few reasons, like “I do it all for the words”, but we both know you’re really saying “I don’t know.” It’s like a farmer saying “I do it all for the plants.”

        I guess I’m just prejudiced of the question. There is no pressing reason for anyone to write. People always say something like “I write because I have to, the words are burning a hole through me and if I don’t squat down over my laptop and squeeze them out onto my blog I will go CRAZY.” The half a hundred thousand years prior to the invention of writing must have been really tough for people like them. That’s not to say writing isn’t nice and helpful and all. Writing is a way for me to make sense of experience and contextualize memory. However, when I’m actually writing, forming sentences, forming a complete thought, there is no motivation beyond the act. If I ask myself “why am I writing?”, I am no longer writing. Your title would be better formulated as “why I have written”. Separate the action from the production. If you build a table the desire to build a table and the desire to have a table you built arise from different parts of the self. The latter is well understood, the former is a more complicated mystery that, like a certain cat, offers less of itself the closer you examine it. Better to let the mysteries lie, and just write.

      • https://thoughtcatalog.com/ Oliver Miller

        Okay. It’s fine with me if you don’t like the essay — you’re probably right to — I was just defending myself from the charge of writing a cliche, ’cause I was writing a cliche on purpose (writers drinking lots of coffee is a cliche and I knew it). And hey, on the plus side, we’re talking about Yeats, which is good.

  • Koty

    I loved the opening (and the rest of it too). As a writer myself it was relatable. It reminded me of all the things us writers do before we actually write – which usually involves consuming some type of stimulant or depressant.

  • justvicki

    “Why I Write” an essay about cliches. Reason given for writing: to break free of cliches. Super genius or super silly?
    I love line ” if you’re not a little afraid when you sit down to write something, then you’re doing something wrong.”
    But ranting about why cliches are boring is just as boring as the cliches themselves.

    • https://thoughtcatalog.com/ Oliver Miller

      Fair enough.

  • Brittany

    As a writer I really enjoyed reading this, and I can attest to the fact that it is engrained in our brains by every writing professor ever that you shouldn’t use cliches. But I’ve never understood that. Most cliches have been overused and repeated because of their undeniable truth. Isn’t something that could be so true as to apply to a million people worth saying sometimes?

    • https://thoughtcatalog.com/ Oliver Miller

      “Isn’t something that could be so true as to apply to a million people worth saying sometimes?” Yes, of course. For example: “Love hurts” is a cliche, but it’s also totally fucking true.

      But what you’ve got to do is to use the cliche as a springboard; tell us something new about why love hurts. If you’re just repeating the fact that love hurts, then you’re not really earning your keep as a writer. That’s why you can’t just use cliches, because then you’re just repeating something that someone else said — and do we need to hear something that someone else has said already? Add something new to it or leave it alone.

  • http://okweirdo.com raymondthimmes

    I feel a bit more aware now as to why I constantly feel as though I “have never been happy or good.”

  • im tight

    Okay can you be my writing coach for a second. Every time I have an idea of what I want to write about, or have a sentence in my head, I get completely paralyzed when it comes to actually writing. WHY IS THIS HAPPENING/HOW DO YOU STOP IT. Also English was always my best subject, largely due to writing so it’s not like I just suck at this. It’s gotten so bad I dropped out of college…I just couldn’t write…
    Okay sorry lol this was really weird
    plz help
    tx

    • GUEST

      you should just force yourself to free write. just write without thinking about what you’re actually writing for a specific amount of time – a few minutes, maybe. if you force yourself to just do it, you might find somewhere in there that you’ve written what you meant to. or it will at least get you going.

      • http://www.facebook.com/oliveramiller Oliver Miller

        Yeah, I agree with what Guest said.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ethan.kaplan.92 Ethan Kaplan

    I love Thought Catalog but I especially loved this. Normally I don’t read the long articles or lose interest halfway through, especially when the article is about something that pertains more to the author than to myself. This really encapsulated me though. Well done.

    I like your take on cliche’s though I have a question. Have you ever looked at a cliche so deeply that you find meaning that isn’t supposed to be there? Not meaning that was intended and undiscovered but meaning that you put there yourself? Then your brain goes off on a huge tangent philosophizing about this stupid little remark that you happened to come up with. Happens to me sometimes but I’m 15 so I’m still at the point in my life where cliche’s can give me a good framework to think about life and what my peers are going through.

    Of course when it does happen I always save it to a word document and forget about it later so I can assume they’re not as profound as I’d like them to be.

    What else have you written? I like your style. Thanks for the piece. It’s given me a good bit to think about.

  • iwriteandstuff

    I loved the part where you talked about wanting to use a sentence and trying to find a place to put it in any of your pieces and it just ISN’T working. It happens to me all the time to the point where I am deciding to put sentences that I know aren’t fitting successfully into a work at the time in a new word document and save it so I can have them in “stock” for later. Also working on avoiding cliches. I usually take one and mess around with it until it’s something completely new. I think this was a very true account of the writer’s process, at least to me.

  • A YOUNG WRITER

    I think there might be a mistake in this essay.

    “As you writing, you’re learning.”

    Shouldn’t it be “As you’re writing, you’re learning.”

    Anyways, I loved reading this piece. It was very informative for me!

  • http://twitter.com/EvWasLike Ev Junior (@EvWasLike)

    TL;DR I like to write.

  • http://thesmallgirl.wordpress.com/2012/07/23/hopeless-in-the-face-of-dumbnessmurda-bizness/ Hopeless in the Face of Dumbness/Murda Bizness « TheSmallGirl

    […] don’t know who Oliver Miller is, but isolating this sentence from this essay he wrote, catapulted me into a memory of a few days […]

  • Teresa

    Oliver – I really enjoyed your article

  • http://rsmithing.com/2012/07/05/from-music-and-words-into-movement-the-fun-of-art/ From Music and Words into Movement – The Fun of Art « rsmithing

    […] Why I Write (ThoughtCatalog.com) […]

  • http://rsmithing.wordpress.com rsmithing

    Enjoyable post, man. I completely relate to the 99% procrastination vs. 1% actual working ratio. But I’d argue that what seems like procrastination is really you gearing up your subconscious to support your conscious mind when it’s finally happening. I link to this from a post of my own, having to do with inspiration: From Music and Words into Movement – The Fun of Art. Feel free to comment if you like – I’d appreciate your perspective. Cheers! (w/vodka)

  • http://wehrismypen.wordpress.com/2012/07/24/if-you-read-anything-today-read-this/ If You Read Anything Today, Read This. « Writing My Next Chapter
  • Shyla

    Honestly, I rather enjoyed it. It was just writing to write. You picked a subject and you just went with it. Sometimes that’s the best and the most free form of writing.

  • ktinie

    I have to be honest, I’m in the middle of writing an essay myself, and this was completely spot on. Everything about it. Thanks for letting me know I’m not the only one.

  • Ozzy

    I think you did tell us why you write. To some people freedom is as important as being alive. We can’t live fully without being ourselves at all times. Art gives us a refuge to create in absolute freedom in a world where we are tied to the responsibilities of livelihood.

    I also agree about the artists job to “affirm the flame”. To give hope to others like ourselves, who haven’t felt freedom in their lives.

  • teresa

    Because writing about the overly tanned mom and other pop culture news proves how you try to avoid trendy topics

    • https://thoughtcatalog.com/ Oliver Miller

      I write about pop culture when I have something funny that I want to say about it. I mean, I wrote about the new Batman movie last week, but I didn’t write a review or an OMG Batman how awesome! article. I wrote a bunch of weird jokes about Rush Limbaugh instead.

  • Elizabeth

    Damn, writers/the commenters on TC (myself included) can come off as fucking pretentious. On the upside, I’ll talk Yeats anyday.

  • manas

    I truly enjoyed this piece. As a writer, I constantly find myself battling cliches, although sometimes, I’m ashamed to admit, with great difficulty. The plight of a writer is escaping the convention that has formed his or her own containment, and your piece expresses that perfectly. I often find myself wondering, like you, what the purpose of writing is when there are so few to appreciate it, when it feels as though everyone is concerned with spitting back rather than producing anew. When I have these thoughts, I console myself with saying that I am original, that what I have to say has never been said before. But then I question that within the context of human experience–can there be such a thing as a totally original, unique perspective? Writing is a quest to find out whether there can be.

    Thank you for your thought-provoking piece.

  • No-s♠r

    Reblogged this on Whatslyfe.

  • http://testimonialcomic.com nishantjn

    Do you find it slightly delusional/douchey to be authoring a piece titled “Why I Write” before you have even published a book which, as you say, you want to do someday?

    That aside, I completely agree when you say – “… if you’re not a little afraid when you sit down to write something, then you’re doing something wrong.”

    I like your writing on TC, much better than most of the other regulars and seeing you actually taking time to respond to reader comments is really wonderful. :)

    • DLD

      Since when is publishing a book the only barometer for considering yourself a writer? Anyone with access to a printer can “publish” a book, but that doesn’t make them a writer. Snooki has published a book, for fuck’s sake, and I’m not even convinced she can read.

      Just saying.

      • nishantjn

        Fair enough. But I guess what I meant was does he consider himself an accomplished enough writer? I personally would think of writing a piece with that kind of title only when I felt I was really successful and accomplished enough to speak that way. I am, by the way, nowhere near as accomplished as Oliver and this is just an opinion.

        As for Snooki, I am sure that’s a ghost-written book.

        Also, don’t take ‘published’ so literally. Of course it is meant to imply reasonable success by publishing through a publishing company and having books sell off bookshelves at bookstores. :)

    • http://www.facebook.com/oliveramiller Oliver Miller

      I found it a little weird, yes, but I’ve been writing online for about seven years, so I dunno. The first time I wrote an article giving writing advice, I was really horrified and embarrassed — “who am I to be giving advice,” etc. — but people liked it, the Atlantic Magazine picked it up, and no one was like “YOU SUCK POSEUR,” so I figured, sure, why not? Plus, I spend so much time writing for my job that I waaant to talk about writing sometimes, because I spend like 70% of my day thinking about writing; I spend much more time thinking about the art of writing than I do thinking about, say, Batman, so why not write articles about writing in addition to writing articles about, say, Batman.

      • http://testimonialcomic.com nishantjn

        Haha, I can understand that. And yeah, I agree. I was just curious about that same thing you just said – how it feels to say why you write when you have set yourself impossibly high perfectionist standards (as most writers do) and probably most of the time feel like you aren’t accomplishing enough (again as most writers do).

        But maybe you should think about Batman more. I mean, it’s Batman!

  • DLD

    Using “reasonable success by publishing through a publishing company and having books sell off bookshelves at bookstores” as an assessment of whether or not someone is a writer is still inaccurate, IMO.

    I think that you’re conflating success with ability and/or aspirations. The title is “Why I Write,” not “Why I Am a Critically/Financially Successful Writer.” I’m sure that every writer we’ve ever read considered themselves a writer long before they were ever successful, you know? And maybe it is a little douchey to publish a “Why I Write” piece without that success, but then again, what writer isn’t a little douchey?

    • nishantjn

      I’m equating perception of success with aspirations. And I got the answer I was looking for in Oliver’s comment above. :)

      And yes, douchey part I agree too. :P

      • http://www.facebook.com/oliveramiller Oliver Miller

        I also agree, and I know plenty of famous-y writers. Writers are douches, mostly because we’re insecure, but still, a little douche-y.

  • Rachel

    Love this piece. The original, “why i write” piece by Terry Tempest Williams will forever be my favorite short essay

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