Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Why we write

Grrlscientist is wondering why people write.
I have noticed that there is truly nothing new under the sun in the world of writing. What I mean is this; in all of your own literary journies, have you ever noticed how all writing, whether it is non-fiction, fiction, poetry, articles and essays, or even blog writing, basically tells the same story, although usually from a different angle?

Okay, I am speculating, so you'll have to let me know if I am simply blowing smoke here. Basically, I think that all writing is a retelling of one universal story that is common to all of us, an all-encompassing story that we all share at a collective, almost genetic, level, regardless of when we lived, our ethnicity, race, religious background, sexual orientation or gender. What is this story? I think it is a quest, it is the story of seeking .. something, whether that something is knowledge, either scientific knowledge or self-knowledge; or an experience, or even the desire to preserve one's status quo -- but writing is all about the journey that is undertaken in the search for something, and in the process, the main character (when there is one), and the reader, are forever changed or transformed in some way.

There is probably a small library available on this topic, but I decided to take a quick shot at it.

I think the function of writing (the noun, a product) is to preserve information--that would be an anthropological stance--while the goal of writing (the verb, an activity) is to communicate with others not present. Combine those two and the purpose of writing is to communicate across time. Put more existentially, the eternal narrative behind all writing is a quest for immortality. In putting our words down we hope to preserve something of our thought so that it might outlive the moment and perhaps outlive us.

The goal of all biological life is to continue through individual or group survival and through reproduction. Once we achieved self-awareness, we added a new dimension to that urge to continue. We wanted something to last beyond us to proclaim "I was here." That awareness transforms a mere urge to continue into a quest for a legacy.

Biological reproduction is enough for most.To be a part of a continuous biological line and to dutifully see that line into the next generation is legacy enough. To add a completely unnecessary side issue into this, these people are still integrated into an older community of tribe, clan, and village (I mean all three of those in the most positive sense). In this this world being part of a group carries with it a guarantee of continuity. They stay closest to our biological roots and are satisfied if they see their genes carried forward.

But for a less satisfied few, that isn't enough. The "I" whose existence we want to proclaim to the universe is more than a pattern of DNA, it is a set of thoughts and personality. Perhaps their desire for a more personal legacy is caused by being in some way divorced from the older community of tribe, clan, and village. They have entered the modern world--a world which began about twenty three centuries ago--of atomized and alienated individuals. Without the stability of a timeless group, they can't count on biology for legacy and immortality.

And so they look to something they produce to create their legacy. They make things or start institutions, which, ironically, some of their members find comfort in as their own timeless groups. Some destroy things in their quest to be remembered (Bakunin was hinting at this when he proclaimed "The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.") Finally, some try to communicate their ideas to the future. Even communicating from now to five minutes from now liberates the me of this moment from vanishing when the moment passes.

Or maybe we write because we like words. What do you think?

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