“Every English major secretly wants to be a writer.” This is a sentence that’s often thrown around in literature classes, but what does it actually mean? We study the greats because we want to be one of the greats? To be fair, I suppose, who wouldn’t want to be at par with Dickens or Fitzgerald? If you have the talent and drive, then by all means, write, but what about those of us who lack one or the other?
When I decided I wanted to study English literature at the collegiate level, it wasn’t so that I could one day become a writer. On the contrary, being a writer was never my plan. I didn’t necessarily like it; I didn’t think I was any good at it, and I had no interest in it, which I realize is odd for someone who loves literature so much. I’ve never wanted to be on “the other side” of reading, possibly because I thought it would ruin the magic of it—like how seeing behind the scenes footage of your favorite film makes it less real, somehow.
What I have always loved is storytelling. Whether it be through film, photography, or the written word, I love and cherish stories. By putting ourselves in the shoes of another person not only do we get to experience life from a different perspective, but we also learn empathy and compassion, and gain a deeper understanding of interpersonal relationships. That is the importance of stories. They can serve as an escape from real life, and they can also be the medium through which we understand real life better. Writer Neil Gaiman elaborates on this with the example of his cousin Helen, who is now in her 90s and lived in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II:
“At that point in time, books were illegal and there was a death sentence for anyone found possessing one. However, Helen had a Polish translation of Gone with the Wind and she kept it hidden behind a loose brick in the wall. She would stay up late every night reading so that when the girls came in the next day she could tell them what had happened in the chapters she had read the previous night and just for that hour these girls got out of the Warsaw Ghetto and they got to visit the American South.
Helen’s story – this story – made me realise that what I do is not trivial. If you make up stuff for a living, which is basically what I do, you can feel kind of trivial sometimes but this made me realise that fiction is not just escapism, it can actually be escape, and it’s worth dying for.”
The question of why we read goes hand in hand with that of why we write. They’re two sides of the same coin, two manifestations of the same phenomenon. Aristotle argued that the purpose of tragedy is to invoke pity and fear, which ultimately culminate in catharsis and allow the audience to freely express these emotions in a controlled space. This still stands true today regardless of whether the piece is a tragedy or not: the aim of any type of literature is to evoke human emotion, and through that, to try to understand something about the human condition. That is why we write, and that is why we read. We write because we want to understand, and we read because we want to feel.
Different genres accomplish this through different forms; realist fiction looks at the world as it is and tries to find the beauty in the ordinary, whereas science-fiction takes an outsider perspective on humanity. Looking at humans through the eyes of an alien will always reveal things that introspection cannot. Although, regardless of genre, introspection is a crucial part of the process of writing. There has to be a certain vulnerability in it; the writer must bare their soul for the reader to consume, for that’s what gives a story its richness. This I find is the most daunting prospect of writing: it takes great courage to be honest with oneself and one’s reader, to open up about certain things in order to lend the story some character, some authenticity.
That said, storytelling is only one side of literature. The other side concerns how these stories are told, regarding the artistic choices the writer makes. After all, I consider literature to be the highest form of art, so the question for me is, do I love literature for the stories it generates, or for the artistic value of their verse and prose? James Joyce reflects this struggle perfectly in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:
“Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and color? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language manycolored and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?”
This brings us back to what I said earlier: that we read because we want to feel. Because we want to make sense of our “inner world of individual emotions”, and we want to do so through “a lucid supple periodic prose”. Really, we can’t separate the story from the form. They go hand in hand and one makes the other better, for what makes a story powerful is the way in which it is told. Without the artistic turn, a story would be no different than something like an eyewitness testimony: soulless, purely factual and functional. The key to literature as art is the evocation of human emotion through creative use of language. To paraphrase what Anton Chekov once wrote, “don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass”.
Truth be told, at the start of this article I didn’t know why I don’t write, so I thought I’d make this as an exploration into why I don’t write, why I read, and why I love literature. I told you, we write to understand! What’s left for me, then, is to come to a place where I can bravely and comfortably be vulnerable enough to generate literature. I know I’ll get there someday, but for now, I’ll stick to borrowing others’ words and end this journey with a few from Dostoyevsky: “but how could you live and have no story to tell?”