Why Do We Write?

April 25th, 2005

In the foreword to his 1977 collection Essays of E. B. White, the famous author wrote “The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest.” In 1995, I put this quote on the first personal web site I ever published, because I felt some need to explain or justify why I was indulging in an act as narcissistic as publishing a site about myself. More recently, I stumbled across a weblog that brought White’s words back to mind.

The weblog is Ernie the Attorney, written by Ernest Svenson of New Orleans. His essay, “Blogger, know thyself; Reader, find something better to do” delves into two questions: the first asks why he writes many of the things he does, especially those things of a personal nature. The second question asks why he is unable to answer the first question. Ernest’s conclusion was that there are some things – things rooted deeply in the subconscious – that we not only are unaware of, but which we are also incapable of discovering for ourselves.

Bear with me for a moment in the supposition that the personal essays of E. B. White are similar in kind, if not in quality, to the personal writings on weblogs like that of Ernest Svenson. (Not that Mr. Svenson’s weblog isn’t quality writing, but most our writing doesn’t even begin to approach the quality of White’s.) The similarity of White’s personal essays to the personal weblogs now prevalent on the Web is a topic I’d like to explore here some day. For now, though, I don’t think it takes too much of a leap of faith if I ask you to consider them to be roughly equivalent, these two forms of personal writing, published for all the world to read.

What, then, motivates people to write and publish introspective essays or blog posts about themselves? Is it possible that these people all share motives as simple as the one E. B. White ascribed to the essayist? Or, on the other hand, is it possible that the motives lie so deeply buried in the subconscious that, like Ernie the Attorney, we’re unable to find them for ourselves? Perhaps White was incorrect in explaining why he wrote about himself. Ernest Svenson was speaking only for himself, but is it possible that White, too, didn’t truly know why he felt the need to write his personal essays?

One scholar questions White’s explanation about the “childish” delusions of the essayist. Charles Gould, Jr., writing in Book Source Magazine, notes that everything that White wrote about in his essays truly was of general interest. Gould suggests that White’s statement should be modified slightly, to read “The great essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the [true] belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest.”

In the end, Gould accepts White’s original, unmodified statement as true. But suppose, just for the sake of discussion, that we do not. Suppose we choose to believe that White, like Svenson, isn’t as sure as he claims to be about why he writes. What, then, do we make of his statement about his “childish beliefs”? I have a theory.

Ernest Svenson writes that he gets a lot of questions about why he speaks of himself as freely as he does. People ask him how he can be so open – and isn’t he afraid of the consequences? White probably got similar questions about his essays, some of which were almost intimately personal. So here we have White, a modest man by all accounts, who is about to publish a book of personal essays, and he feels some need to explain his writings – an explanation he is not sure of himself. How, then, does he explain himself? He makes something up. An explanation that makes sense, at least on the surface, is modestly self-effacing, is delivered with White’s typical sense of humor, and is intended not so much to answer questions as to deflect them. To give it emphasis, he delivers this made-up explanation as the very first sentence of the book.

This theory makes perfect sense, if you believe that White himself didn’t have a good explanation for why he wrote about himself. The trouble is, I don’t believe it. It’s an interesting exercise, but I just can’t believe that E. B. White, an honest, insightful man with a gift for simple, clear communication, could have such trouble understanding his own motives. On the other hand, I don’t entirely believe the explanation he gives in his foreword. I believe White understood why he wrote, but his statement about “childish beliefs” sounds more like deflection than explanation. I doubt that White truly believed his motivations were rooted in childishness.

What about the rest of us, though? Are we more likely to be like E. B. White, or like Ernest Svenson? I obviously speak only for myself, but I know why I choose to write about myself and publish on my web site. For one thing, it’s a way to keep in touch with my family, all of whom live in other states, to keep them up to date with the daily trivia of life. For another, it’s a way to create something that will outlive me. The Internet is ideal for both these reasons: it has global reach and a very long memory – it spans both space and time.

I know that one day I’ll be gone from this earth, and I’d like to leave something of myself behind. Something to tell my story. Something multidimensional, with family photos, accounts of my daily doings, and the occasional introspective essay like this one. One day in the distant future, if one of my descendents should become curious about that peculiar ape hanging a few generations back up the family tree, all that person need do is plug jimthompson.org into the Wayback Machine at archive.org, and a thousand slices of my life will spill forth.

The desire to tell our story to future generations must be a common one. My grandfather wrote his story, which he modestly called his “Memoirs,” although it was actually an autobiography. My father has said he wants to do the same, and I dearly hope he does. I have the same desire; for me, the idea of passing on without recording my story in some form or fashion – even a jumbled web site – is just unthinkable. I think something of this sentiment must have motivated E. B. White too. Consider the first sentence from his essay “Death of a Pig”:

I spent several days and nights in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting.

I , too, feel driven to account for my time. It’s one of the reasons why I put pieces of my life into this web site. It is a far less eloquent accounting than White’s, but it serves its purpose. I hope to be more diligent in the future in keeping the site up to date. Come to think of it, I’ll have to be more diligent; I don’t have any pig to do my accounting.

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