Eisenbud’s Odyssey: Why I write

I think it’s important for you, as readers, to understand why it is that I (or anyone else, for that matter) writes to you in these relatively rarefied pages.

George Orwell Big (photo credit: Courtesy )
George Orwell Big
(photo credit: Courtesy )
When I was in journalism school, one of my professors gave my classmates and me a thick binder containing works by some of the greatest writers of the last century. It was a veritable motley crew of genius – including writings by Mark Twain, Hunter Thompson, Truman Capote, Gay Talese, Nellie Bly, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, John Irving, Franz Kafka, and several other luminaries (living, and of course, dead) whom I would pay serious cash to have a beer with.
Of all the thought-provoking gems of prose that I went through in that binder, one piece in particular caught my attention far more than the others, which is saying something. It was a short, simple essay, published in 1946 by George Orwell, entitled “Why I Write.”
I still remember devouring each word, knowing that Orwell – a true literary giant if there ever was one – was essentially allowing people the rare opportunity to glimpse a very private side of him that was mostly inaccessible through his fiction alone.
Indeed, in my mind, it was as if a curtain was being raised exposing The Wizard of Oz himself.
IN THE piece, Orwell goes to great pains to dispel any myths that he writes purely for some greater purpose – or even because he loves to write. Instead, he makes it clear that for him, writing is the result of a very personal need, derived largely by insecurity and personal demons.
In Orwell’s words: “Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:
(1) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc…
(2) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement…
(3) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity…
(4) Political purpose. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after…”
He concludes his essay by stating:
“…All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing… is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
Pretty dark stuff, no? But he’s entirely right.
INDEED, HAVING studied with and worked with my fair share of writers over the years, there’s no question that the brunt of them are driven by ego (often misguided), the beauty of words (a respectable cause), political propaganda (occasionally downright frightening), and something that, to the naked eye, would appear to be little more than masochism – or, as Orwell puts it: “mystery.”
It is the latter point that is the true crux of the question of why I, and most people, write.
After all, the vast majority of writers never make enough money to support themselves, or even have their work see the light of day. In the case of Kafka – a definitively tortured genius – his painstaking writing wasn’t even recognized until after he died.
It makes you wonder why anyone would be mad enough to pursue a craft that you have better odds of getting struck by lightning – or getting a date with Natalie Portman – than succeeding in.
To be sure, I have had more than my share of frightening moments grappling with the uncertainty of my chosen vocation – feeling like I was pushing a petulant elephant up an infinite, narrow, winding staircase with broken steps, while wearing roller-blades, no helmet, with a bunch of angry (inbreeding) villagers with pitchforks and torches chasing me from behind.
And that’s just on a professional level.
In terms of my personal life, I still have countless, painfully vivid memories of trying to impress various pretty women at whatever bar I was in throughout my 20s that I was a “writer,” and then wanting to curl up into the fetal position and die a quick, painless death when they invariably asked me where I have been published.
Then, of course, there’s the self-doubt that haunts all writers, to varying degrees, the way recurring dreams of being naked in public haunts sleepers.
HOWEVER, THERE are a select few writers who possess a degree of natural talent, intellectual curiosity and – most importantly – a refusal to give up no matter what.
These brave souls slog through a seemingly never-ending quagmire of mind-numbing obstacles with the mere hope to be given the privilege of expressing themselves to discriminating readers.
I, very humbly, am blessed to be among their numbers.
But it didn’t come easy – or almost at all, for that matter – which begs the question: Why didn’t I just go to law school or get an MBA, like every other marginally intelligent Jewish boy? The answer is simple, and the reason I’m writing this essay.
I THINK it’s important for you, as readers, to understand why it is that I (or anyone else, for that matter) writes to you in these relatively rarefied pages.
Now, while I certainly agree with the bulk of what Orwell believes drives writers, for me, at the end of the day, I write for two reasons:
(1) Because it’s one of the few things I’m any good at.
(2) Because words, in the right arrangement, are the most powerful weapons man has ever known to affect constructive change of any kind – and I’m acutely aware of this fact.
Indeed, I have long believed that the pen is mightier than the sword – so much so, in fact, that I have the image of a fountain pen breaking a sword in half emblazoned on my right shoulder. Pretty intense guy, I am.
But tattoos aside, my faculty and fascination with words – and what they are capable of – coupled with an inherent sense of empathy and my life experience as a member of a family that was devastated for their religious affiliation, have provided me with the fuel I needed to get to this point.
YOU SEE, the reason I endured years of self-flagellation, doubt, fear, inadequacy, anxiety, profoundly lousy paychecks, and rejection from countless pretty women who preferred men with competitive salaries, is because I knew in my gut that if I could survive all these horrible feelings, there was a good chance that I’d have something of substance to say.
Indeed, my mantra was always – and had to be – Friedrich Nietzsche’s chilling but accurate axiom : “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”
Truer words have never been spoken, especially with respect to the Jewish people.
Yet, even more importantly than Darwinian theory, what drives me more than anything else is the opportunity to connect with people like you. To partake in an international meeting of the minds, based on respect, elevated thought and the mere possibility of affecting greater understanding and tolerance in an otherwise confused, intolerant world.
In short: To harness the profound power of words for the greater good.
That inspires me to no end.
That is why I write.