DESIRE TO WRITE

In no other age can so many people have harboured such intense ambitions to become writers. The longing one day to turn out a book – probably a novel or, less likely, an autobiography – lies close to the center of contemporary aspirations. This is – at one level – a hugely welcome development, a consequence of widespread literacy, higher educational standards and a proper focus on the power of books to change lives. But looked at from another angle, it may also, in private, be the result of something rather more desultory: an epidemic of isolation and loneliness. The army of literary agents, scouts, editors and writing coaches testifies not only to our love of literature, but also, less intentionally, to an unaddressed groundswell of painful solitude.

Reasons for wanting to write are multiple of course, but the structurally simplest option may also be the most pervasive: we write because there is no one in the vicinity who will listen. We start to long to set down our memories and emotions on a page and to send them out into the wider world because our friends can’t be bothered to hear us, because our partners are preoccupied and because it’s been agonisingly long since anyone gave us an uninterrupted stretch of time in which we could be attended to with respect and attention – in short, because we are very lonely. Writing, for all that it might begin with experiences of joy or disinterested intellectual fascination, also owes its origins to despair, shame and a lack of someone to cry with. It is when we have screamed a long time for help, and no one came, that we may begin quietly to burn to write a novel instead. Writing can be the presenting solution to a more poignant ambition beneath: to be heard, to be held, to be respected, to have our feelings interpreted, and soothed, to be known and appreciated. Flaubert put it at its simplest: if he had been happy in love at eighteen, he would never have wanted to write.

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