“Why I Write”

by Stephen Hebert on Thursday - 24 December 2009

in Arts

A recent interview in DIVINITY Magazine with Duke NT scholar Joel Marcus reminded me of this quote from George Orwell:

My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.” I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.1

How true these words are!

I have many times sat down to write a fantastic short story or the great American novel with the “work of art” mentality that kills. Every stroke of the pen, every clack of the keyboard is met with ultimate frustration as you begin to measure yourself by the standards of Hemingway, Faulkner, O’Connor, et al. You realize that your genius is insignificant compared to the literary giants that inspire you. As the light of their blazing suns engulfs you, you realize that you are but a candle being jostled by the winds of self-consciousness: “Give up now, Stephen,” the wind says.

Orwell’s point is well taken. At the end of the day, writing, like any work of art, can’t come from a desire to be great, but a need to create. If there is no need deep within your soul, then you’re just wasting everybody’s time — especially your own.

A friend of mine teaches Math at a high school here in the Houston area. He embodies this “need” mentality. Currently, he is working on a book about the beauty of mathematics, the poetry. His hopes lie not in trying to create a stunning piece of art, but in his need to communicate the rage that burns inside him — he is fed up with students who think that math is only useful if you are going into engineering or some other mathematics intensive field. He must communicate to people what it means to think mathematically; he must help them to see the value in simply learning it. He is writing out of need.

So, fickle Muse, in this dearth of inspiration, amidst the doldrums of imagination I know you lurk burning with a desire and a need to communicate and expose. Will you find your way into my head and on to my page?


  1. Read Orwell’s full essay: “Why I Write.”

Previous post:

Next post: