In 1946, George Orwell published a short piece entitled: ‘Why I write’, in an attempt to reveal his motivations. In it, he describes the ‘four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose:
Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one …. there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.
Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement …. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.
Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. 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.’
I wrote a blog two years ago entitled ‘Why I write too’ because I wanted to think about what writing did for me. I suspect that all the reasons Orwell stated above can be found in my own motivations, hidden or not. But there is much more to it than simply attracting an audience or building a reputation.
The last few months of lockdown have challenged many of us who live with mental health issues. The social isolation, constant state of public anxiety and the space to think/brood/ruminate have all played their parts. For some of us, the illness or death of a loved one has added to the downward pressure. I hope that, along with the challenging feelings and difficult thoughts, there has also been some time to reflect on what might help to alleviate them.
As well as a form of verbal processing - ‘how will I know what I think until I’ve heard what I’ve got to say?’ - writing is part of my reaction to depression and anxiety. The simple act of putting words on paper (and I do tend to write in longhand a lot) helps me to capture some of those inner voices that can be so troubling. Making them ‘physical’ seems to change them: they are a bit like viruses in that they find it hard to survive outside the host body/mind. Writing them down helps me to see them for what they are - often untrue statements or expectations that bear no relation to reality.
So much of the power of depression is that it lurks in the dark recesses of our inner worlds, in the same places as those things of which we are ashamed and guilty. Like bindweed, they latch on to those feelings and tell us that we should hide away our mental illness because others will reject or judge us. And like bindweed, whilst you can get rid of most of it, it will continue to linger and try to reestablish a hold when ignored.
Alongside medication and talking therapies, I have found that openness and honesty are great tools for tackling depression and anxiety. Being able to examine some of those destructive patterns of thought and behaviour in the cold light of day - and in the presence of trusted friends and colleagues - exposes their weaknesses. My journal is one of those trusted companions, a friend who is always ready to ready the stuff I write each day in a spirit of openness.
Writing is physical as well as intellectual, emotional and spiritual. In writing, I am connected physically to the page through the pen or keyboard and so, at least for a moment or two, the page becomes a part of me. As the ink flows, so does part of me and my life. I choose to offer a bit of myself to an unknown public through this blog in the hope that it embodies some truth that resonates with the reader. It might challenge and comfort, affirm and provoke, but I think that its main purpose is to convey some of the transformative energy of truth-telling (satyagraha for MK Gandhi) to others. In that way, everything I write is ‘political’ in Orwell’s terms.
This is my way of saying to those who have kept faith with ‘flagging faith’: your interest and attention keeps me writing and challenges me to write more and better and more honestly. So thank you! Here is one of my favourite poems from Seamus Heaney because it captures in a few lines what I’ve taken far too long to say: