Why Write?

Everybody wants to be a writer. Admit it. You may be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer or an MBA from Wharton, but secretly, you want to be a writer. When you retire, you plan to pen your memoir, or that romance you’ve been fantasizing about, or a medical mystery, Hot Zone-style. If Abraham Verghese can do it, can’t you?

Most people think writing is easy. After all, we do it all the time: emails, homework, lab reports, memos, speeches, diaries, travel logs, blogs, IM profiles … You don’t have to be an English major or a journalist to write; you don’t even have to have a particularly good grasp of grammar to write (hooray for modernism and rule-breakers like Hunter Thompson). Writing is one of those things that we all do, can do, have done, and take for granted. Like talking. And it’s subjective, too. Easy. Cheap. Requires only a pencil and a sheet of paper. Imagination is helpful, but not required, and rhythm’s a blessing, but not a requisite. Most people assume that writing would be a great alternative to their present careers or career plans in a way that astrophysics or corporate law could never be for those who train in, for example, creative writing. The writers just aren’t that audacious.

As memoirist Bill Roorbach recounts, people invariably respond to mention of his writing with, “I could have written that book! Always wanted to take off a month and write the darn thing.” Others talk of taking six months off from their “real” jobs to write their life stories. Roorbach has come up with a satisfying comeback: “You know, you’ve inspired me! I’m going to take six months off and become a surgeon!”

Take that.

Indignant writers aside, it must be acknowledged that, in a sense, well, yes, it’s getting easier and easier for any Tom, Dick, Harry, Tina, Divya, or Han to technically become a novelist, poet, or essayist. Over 115,000 books are published in the United States each year, and undeniably they vary in authorship and quality. Nowadays it’s painfully obvious that there is money in books, and, as with anything that has been exploited by capitalism, there’s money in publishing. Just look at how many pieces of questionable prose have sprung out of the South Asian diaspora! Anyone can be a writer. A sobering thought for someone who’s just decided to devote her life, energy and love to what most people consider a hobby they could spend more time on, if they didn’t have important work to do.

It probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone reading this article that I, Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan, want to be a writer. That’s why I file these columns month after month, isn’t it? Why I respond to queries about my plans for the future with references to poets and novelists and dreams of book readings and hardcover editions. But until recently, I’d been responding to those queries with talk of becoming a writer and something else. First, I wanted to be a doctor and a writer. Then, an immunologist and a writer. For a time, I thought, a politician and a writer. Never just a writer. But I’ve finally worked up the nerve to say it. I want to be a writer. Period. Come whatever else I may become, wherever my multifarious academic aspirations lead. Bottom line: I want to write. And I do.

Why? Well, at the risk of sounding overly defensive, I’ve finally figured out what to say when people ask the inevitable, “Why?” Why would a good student (a “well-rounder,” older Indians intone) give up other, more lucrative professional opportunities to become a writer? “Why do you write?” they ask. I get it all the time. It’s quite ironic, given my preface about all the ambitious would-be writers out there. The sad truth is that most people would like to write, but consider it an undemanding pastime. The few who recognize just how difficult writing is often can’t imagine why one would waste time and ability on an endeavor as commonplace as the crafting of words.

To them I say: I write because I could spend my entire life repeating other people’s words and phrases and witticisms, and seem clever and funny and eloquent in the process, and that’s not good enough for me.

I write so that I don’t have to echo my writer-uncle, Shashi Tharoor, who echoes George Bernard Shaw: “I write for the same reason a cow gives milk; it is inside me and it’s got to come out.” I write so that I need not repeat Anna Quindlen’s line: “I hate to write, but I love having written.” Which doesn’t mean I don’t agree with Anna Quindlen. Which doesn’t mean I don’t wish upon wish and star that I could say something as true and smart as George Bernard Shaw. I do. And that’s why I write.

I write because the voices in my head overwhelm me. Because I love coffee. Because I love beauty. Because, to take a cue from Gloria Estefan, the rhythm gets me every time, and it’s the rhythm of words. I write because it is the only way I know how to think. I write because of Good Night Moon and The God of Small Things. Because of poetry, humor, drama, and love.

I write because, as I whispered to J.M. Coetzee between spelling my name and holding my breath for his autograph, “I want to be a secretary of the visible.” Because there is nothing more glamorous than appearing before a crowd, or a computer monitor, and voicing, then hearing, my writing aloud. I write because I am Karl Marx’s species-being: selfish and selfless, acting in my own interest and the interests of others, giving life and sustaining my own. Because the world is riveting—no, horrifying—no, incredible—no, incomprehensible. I write because I haven’t yet found the word, and I’m still searching.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a sophomore and Angier B. Duke Scholar at Duke University.

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