Question Your Motives

I’m in the habit of constantly questioning my motives for almost every task these days, probably because I have teenagers who are always questioning me. I have to prepare a good answer for everything.

Since beginning the MFA in Creative Writing program, I find myself checking in every few days, asking why I write and what I hope to accomplish, which in my head sounds like what-the-hell-am-I-doing-I-must-be-insane. No matter where you are in life, this is a good exercise because our motives are what motivate us.

George Orwell found value in questioning his motives, too. In his essay “Why I Write,” he gives four reasons for why he thinks all people write, which sounds like a blog piece for Buzzfeed, though it was written in 1946. He was ahead of his time. The four reasons:

  1. My ego is big.
  2. I want to make something pretty.
  3. I want to make a historical record.
  4. I have a political/social agenda.

In Orwell’s opinion, almost every writer should write for reason four because that’s the reason he writes. And if you don’t, you have nothing important to say, according to Orwell. I disagree. But I had trouble figuring out why. So, I went down his list and questioned my own motives.

Do I write because my ego is big? Okay, yes, I write because my ego finally showed up to the party. For years I’ve been ghostwriting to pay the bills, someone else’s name has been in the byline, and now it’s time for the Era of Me. I just want to put my name on something. That’s my ego motivating me.

And yes to the second: I want to make something beautiful and odd and new. That seems a terrific reason to write.

For the historical record? Okay, sure. I’d like to leave something of myself on this planet, other than daffodil fodder. Wait, is that historical record or ego motivating me?

The fourth, yes again: I want to make the world a better place, as trite as it sounds.

While those are good reasons, are they really my raison d’etre?

Michelle Bitting explores writing poetry in her poem “Beginnings,” I really like the beginning of “Beginnings” because it references the act of creation: “When Job stands up to God / the poems tumble out.” The poem suggests that art happens when the creation usurps the creator. I disagree. (It’s a pattern, this disagreeable me.) Creation is an act of love and self-expression. Ask any parent. When humans create art, it’s out of that same passion that wells up from within. Just like the creator, we express ourselves.

Now I can add a number five to Orwell’s list: I write because I must.

Then Bitting writes about how writing in the wee dawn hours helps her get in touch with her feelings and emotions: “This is the moment / I know myself best.” Surprise, I agree. Creating is a psychological act that we humans engage in to make sense of the world and to make sense of ourselves. Therapists advise that we journal. Buddhists advise that we write our feelings down on paper lanterns and let them float away.

Now I can add number six to Orwell’s list: I write to know myself.

Without going back to Bitting’s poem or even Orwell’s list, a seventh reason is conspicuously absent. It is my raison d’etre. When I write, my motivations disappear. I don’t think about my ego, I don’t pressure myself with creating beauty, I am not bound by space and time, and honestly, I don’t have any political or social agenda in mind. I write to leave this world and escape.

When I think about my motivation in life, or reason for being, it is this: I write to be free.