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Why Write?

June 3, 2013

George Orwell, Why I WriteIn his essay Why I Write, George Orwell suggested four great motives for writing, which exist in different degrees in every writer: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. Last year Deborah Levy was commissioned to write an essay responding to Why I Write, and to consider these motives from a female writer’s point of view. At the Sydney Writers Festival she described how she wrote the essay.

At the time she was moving house and had no room in which to work. Celia Hewitt, widow of Deborah’s friend, the poet Adrian Mitchell, offered her shed. There Levy had no internet and was without her library, apart from a few select books. For company she had the ashes of both Adrian and his beloved golden retriever, Daisy the Dog of Peace. It was the heart of winter, and sometimes she was snowed in and had to dig her way out.

Under these conditions, her writing flourished. But she worried that the essay was becoming increasingly autobiographical and contacted her agent. “Should I continue,” she asked. The editor replied, “All of Orwell’s work was autobiographical.” So she continued.

Recently she had found she could not stop crying as she ascended the escalators at tube stations. Going down was fine, but tears would stream from her eyes on the way up. As she wrote she realised this was a physical symptom of a conversation she was having with herself.

Levy’s father was a member of the African National Congress in South Africa. Once when she was five, it snowed in Johannesburg, a rare occurrence. She and her father made a snowman. That night he was taken away by the security forces and she did not see him for four years.

Anger, injustice and humiliation provide one impulse for writing, but Levy does not rage against the regime. She prefers to write calmly, telling the story of how, at five, she played with the daughter of the family’s servant – they loved taking a bath together – but also how she could not understand why her friend couldn’t stay, but had to return to her grandmother in the black township.

Orwell may have claimed that his main motive for writing was sheer egoism, but he also combined the political and the aesthetic, turning his political writings into art. Similarly, while Levy is prepared to take sides, she always asks, “Okay, but is it a good read?”

From the viewpoint of a female writer, she sees another question as vital whenever we write a female character into the world: What are her desires? We must ask this because women are so used to cancelling their desires. A similar point was made by Claire Messud and Cate Kennedy in another festival session (see Ouch!).

Levy’s response to the trauma of South Africa was to stop talking. Eventually a teacher asked her to write things down. She’s been writing ever since.

Deborah Levy is a British playwright, poet and novelist. Her novel “Swimming Home” was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012 and her essay “Things I Don’t Want to Know: A Response to George Orwell’s Why I Write,” has just been published by Notting Hill.

Addition 16/6/2013: “Modernism is the soft typewriter of the womb that made me.” Deborah Levy interviewed by Darran Anderson at 3:AM Magazine here.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 3, 2013 8:36 pm

    Ooh, I want this one!
    But first I should read The Long Song which has been on my TBR for too long…

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