THR Web Features   /   October 3, 2023

Why Characters Write

First-person narrators and the stories they tell.

Richard Hughes Gibson

( Shutterstock, Inc.)

I write down what I observe in my notebooks. I do this for two reasons. The first that Writing inculcates habits of precision and carefulness. The second is to preserve whatever knowledge I possess for you, the Sixteenth Person. I keep my notebooks in a brown leather messenger bag; the bag is generally stored in a hollow place behind the Statue of an Angel caught on a Rose Bush in the North-Eastern Corner of the Second Northern Hall. This is also where I keep my watch, which I need on Tuesday and Fridays when I go to meet the Other at 10 o’clock. (On other days I try not to carry my watch for fear that Sea Water will get inside and damage the mechanism.)

One of my notebooks is my Table of Tides. In it I set down the Times and Volumes of High and Low Tides and make calculations of the Tides to come. Another notebook is my Catalogue of Statues. In the others I keep my Journal in which I write my thoughts and memories and make a record of my days. So far my Journal has filled nine notebooks; this is the tenth. All are numbered and most are labelled with the dates to which they refer.

Piranesi (2019) by Susanna Clarke

Lila is overdoing it as usual, I thought.

She was expanding the concept of trace out of all proportion. She wanted not only to disappear herself, now, at the age of sixty-six, but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind.

I was really angry.

We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write—all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (2012; trans. Ann Goldstein)

In 1946 a short-lived British literary journal named Gangrel—a Scots word meaning “tramp” or “vagrant”—announced an upcoming issue in which leading writers would address the theme of “Why I Write.” Multiple contributors then dropped out or changed topics, and even the pieces that came in were not entirely in line with the editors’ stated interest in writing as a “vocational task.” The issue would be Gangrel’s last. Yet one submission, George Orwell’s, would endure, giving the editors’ assigned title an unanticipated afterlife in numerous subsequent writers’ testimonies. (“Of course I stole the title for this talk from George Orwell,” Joan Didion observes at the beginning of her 1976 essay, “Why I Write.”)

Orwell’s essay is so memorable because he did not do as he was asked. No bromides on the writer’s calling are to be found here. The far more pressing problem in Orwell’s view is the writer’s motivation. “Writing a book,” he correctly explains, “is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.” Why do people subject themselves to this torture? Orwell argues that, aside from the need to earn money, there are “four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose.” The first is “sheer egoism,” which he defines as the “Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.” The second is “aesthetic enthusiasm”: “Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement.” Next comes “historical impulse”: “Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.” And, finally, he proposes “political purpose,” “using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” These are not, Orwell stresses, lifelong commitments. All four motives circulate—like the ancient humors—in every writer, at “war” with one another, rising and falling over time, influenced by “the atmosphere in which [the writer] is living.”

“Why I Write” is often handed to students as an encouragement to ponder their own motivations, becoming, in effect, the writerly version of a personality test. Are you strongly worried about true facts but also socially engaged? Then you’re showing signs of HI-PP. Or are you maybe AE-SE, hungry for approval but stimulated by beauty? Could you be PP-SE, politically conscious but a total egoist? Occasionally, critics cite Orwell’s list when evaluating famous authors. Dickens? Definitely, PP-SE. George Eliot? HI-PP. Joyce? How about AE-HI?

I bring up Orwell’s essay now, however, to consider another problem of motivation in the house of fiction: why characters write. The problem is more acute in stories narrated in the first person, since, fairly or not, that mode of narration more directly raises the logistical question of how we readers have access to the story. Is someone speaking? Was this story written down at some point? If so, why? And by whom? Some writers get around these issues by signaling that the book belongs to a genre in which first-person reportage is customary or even necessary. For example, once we read the subtitle to Jane Eyre, An Autobiography, all logistical problems dissolve. Of course, an autobiographer is writing about herself! The problem now shifts to whether Jane’s life keeps our attention. Other writers acknowledge logistical impasses without purporting to solve them. Margaret Atwood cleverly does this in The Penelopiad, her Penelope lamenting that words from the Underworld rarely reach the ears of the living: “Those of you who may catch the odd whisper, the odd squeak, so easily mistake my words for breezes rustling the dry reeds, for bats at twilight, for bad dreams.” (Atwood’s Penelope looks to me like some SE expressing itself under the cover of HI, her author, meanwhile, working under the banner of PP.)

Our two excerpts take the “Why I’m Writing” problem (if you will) head on. The first—drawn from Susanna Clarke’s novel Piranesi—deploys a classic logistical-resolution strategy: presenting the text as the character’s personal journal. The strategy’s appeal is obvious. It creates a plausible enough scenario for the narrator to record local goings-on and for the reader to be encountering those records at some later time. As Emily Brontë demonstrated in Wuthering Heights, this strategy can be established with minimal effort: “1801—I have just returned from a visit to my landlord….” Clarke takes greater pains to sell the reader on the fiction that she is receiving “raw material.” Instead of chapters, the book’s four larger sections are divided into journal entries, each one labeled and accompanied by a date.

But the conventional formatting belies the oddity of the journal’s contents. In the two previous entries of Part 1, the narrator reports that he has been wandering around statue-lined vestibules through which tides pass, that “the World” consists of thousands (perhaps innumerable) such vestibules, and that fifteen people total have ever lived. As stated in the excerpt, his audience is the hoped-for Sixteenth Person, whether a “traveler who has cheated Tides” or “someone who inhabits my own Halls long after I am dead.” The current entry is dated, curiously, “Entry for the seventeenth day of the fifth month in the year the albatross came to the south-western halls.”

Odd, odd, odd. The account of why the narrator is writing in the journal reads like the answer to a homework assignment based on Orwell’s essay: His answer is the historical impulse (preservation of knowledge) accompanied by a Benjamin Franklin-esque desire for self-improvement (“Writing inculcates habits of precision and carefulness”). Let’s call this the embarrassingly earnest diarist gambit, and Clarke is not alone in employing it. Compare the opening of George Saunders’s superb short story “The Semplica-Girl Diaries”: “Having just turned forty, have resolved to embark on grand project of writing every day in this new black book just got at OfficeMax. Exciting to think […] what a picture of life and times [will be] available for kids & grandkids, even greatgrandkids, whoever…” Yet unlike Saunders’s aspiring journal-keeper, Clarke’s narrator has, in fact, been journaling for years. This entry appears in his tenth notebook. Why is he only now pausing to define his reasons for writing?

The puzzle intensifies in the paragraphs immediately following the excerpt, as the narrator lists dates found on the earlier notebooks. Numbers 1 and 2 bear the recognizable dates “December 2011 to June 2012” and “June 2012 to November 2012,” respectively. But then we learn that Number 3, “originally labelled November 2012,” has been relabeled according to a bespoke system “Thirtieth Day in the Twelfth Month in the Year of Weeping and Wailing...” Yet the narrator does not recall the reason for the switch nor for the “gaps” in the first and second notebooks “where pages have been violently removed.” The reader cannot help but wonder what is going on here. And that is the brilliance of Clarke’s technique: The diarist’s seemingly conventional explanation of “Why I write” raises more problems than it solves, thereby keeping us reading to find out what has happened to this writer.

The second excerpt brings the prologue of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend—the first novel in her famed Neapolitan trilogy—to a close. That prologue begins with a telephone call from Rino, daughter of Lila, the brilliant childhood friend named in the book’s title. Rino reports that his mother—still a resident of Naples, the women’s hometown—disappeared two weeks ago and asks if she is staying with the narrator, Elena, in Turin. Elena has no information about his mother’s whereabouts, bringing Rino to tears that “began fake and became real.” In Elena’s response, we get our first taste of Lila’s character and the frank, tense, and often cruel character of the poor neighborhood where the story takes place, “Please, for once behave as she would like: don’t look for her.”

Days later, Rino phones again, and this time Elena has advice: Look in Lila’s closet. There Rino discovers nothing—“not one of his mother’s dresses, summer or winter, only old hangers.” Further searching reveals books, photographs, movies, computer, even “the old-fashioned diskettes.” “She cut herself out of all the photographs of the rest of us, even when I was little,” Rino announces. The excerpt relates Elena’s quiet response. With remarkable economy, Ferrante conveys that special coupling of intimacy and judgment that comes from knowing someone since childhood: “Lila is overdoing it as usual, I thought.” Lila is, apparently, in on the secret plan to disappear without a trace, but she is having none of it. Now the act of recording their story becomes an opportunity to get back at her old friend: “We’ll see who wins this time.”

Orwell’s matrix doesn’t provide an easy explanation for why Elena is writing. My Brilliant Friend demonstrates the historical impulse on Ferrante’s part, certainly. But Elena is not, like Clarke’s narrator, a would-be researcher duly storing up true facts for the benefit of posterity. Nor is the work designed by the first-person narrator to change society, though what she reveals about her old neighborhood may well provoke sympathy for poor children. No, this story is motivated by the terms of a specific relation between characters. In her version of “Why I Write,” Didion implicitly questions the benevolence of Orwell’s overarching picture, boiling down the motive to write to the sound shared by all three words in Gangrel’s assigned title: I, I, I. “In many ways,” she writes, “writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act.” For Didion, though, the generic reader is the target of this aggression, this “invasion.” Elena shows us the specific interpersonal potential of that hostile act—a raid on the past that settles old scores. As in Piranesi, the shards of memory have jagged edges. In one text, the writer seeks to piece them back together; in the other, to wield them.