I heard Gillian Slovo, the South African-born author, last Saturday at the International Literature Festival Dublin 2017. She was talking, along with fellow writer Danielle McLaughlin, to author and psychotherapist Susie Orbach, on the topic of Why We Write. Orbach was fantastic in gently teasing out subtexts and hidden corners of thoughts – it felt more like being privy to an intimate conversation than listening to a panel discussion where, in the worst cases, the same old clichés are being rehearsed.
The questions of why we write, and how we write, fascinate me. The more I learn about this – also from writing myself – the more interesting it becomes. Susie Orbach said that she writes to explore what she is thinking. She is not alone in that – many people may write a journal for this reason, if nothing else.
I am particularly interested in literary non-fiction, and one of its main formats, the personal essay, centres on a process of verbalisation and exploration. A good essay should walk you through the thoughts of an author as they happen. This is not a special effect superimposed on the finished text in the way a murder mystery is structured. The case in essay writing is commonly that the author has a question, rather than already an answer, and elaborates and records her train of thought. Of course, there may be some re-writing once the reflection has been worked out for the first time, in order to shine up the language or bridge some jumps in the logic. But the essential format of seeking and finding will be kept, and it is actually this journey of discovery that is enjoyable to the readers. Also fiction writers are advised to let the reader discover facts about the story or characters as they go along, and not to overload them with all the details upfront. That is fit for a newspaper article, not a story.
Many writers explore personal topics this way, too, about their own present or past. This is sometimes dismissed as “writing being just a form of therapy”. This is irritating for two reasons. For one, there is nothing wrong with therapy; indeed there is nothing wrong with having mental health issues, but that is another discussion. Secondly, there is nothing wrong with writing being therapeutic. The real question is whether it is good writing, in non-fiction as in fiction. If it is good, it will be worth reading, no matter the motivation or circumstances of the author.
Gillian Slovo and Danielle McLaughlin are first and foremost fiction writers, although Slovo has also published a memoir of her childhood in South Africa as the daughter of two major figures in the anti-apartheid movement. Both authors spoke to Susie Orbach about the curious sensation of finding themselves, various parts of themselves, in the characters of their stories. These are usually not superficial likenesses of age, sex, or background. It usually concerns deeper emotions such as fears or desires. Through a character (or plot), an author can also explore darker sides of her soul, from the petty to the monstrous. As a reader, we do the same – this is one of the fundamental attractions of storytelling.
There is another way of understanding what Slovo said about missing oneself, and that is about the voice of the author. Every writer has a voice, which grows usually more defined with experience – you can also call it their style. Some writers are wordy, others sparse. Some are colourful, others minimalist, tongue-in-cheek, warm, mocking, cynical, forthright or reserved. For the reader, it gives an additional pleasure to reading. But for a writer who has found her voice, the pleasure comes from being entirely oneself, of recognising oneself and realising oneself in the process of creation, of choosing exactly this word over that, to sculpt this thought, or that. It is a feeling that imagine is similar in other artistic activities, and it is altogether addictive.