Writing as a Hostile Act

This is the second paragraph of Joan Didion’s “Why I Write,” which was originally delivered as a speech at University of California, Berkeley and was later published in the New York Times Book Review (in December of 1976). I read it in Douglas Hunt’s The Dolphin Reader (6th Ed).

This piece wasn’t actually assigned but I love Joan Didion and so I read it anyway. Now I can’t stop considering it.

In many ways 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. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions–with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather that stating–but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.

I read this quote through the lens of the last few years of writing. I know there were times when my writing was aggressive, when I was a not-so-secret bully. There were times when publishing my words was a hostile act. I didn’t recognize my actions as such then, but I do now. So I know that Didion is right, some of the time. But is she always?

I think one of the reasons that I have a hard time making friends is I share too much, too quickly. I’m not sure if it’s the loneliness that lurks constantly, or a fear that eventually I’ll be found out so I might as well confess of my own volition, or if I’m just desperate to be really and truly accepted for who I am, but no matter the reason, I hoist unfair burdens on unsuspecting acquaintances all the time.

It’s something I’m desperate to stop doing. I’ve been somewhat successful in my attempts.

I struggle with authenticity and over-sharing. I want to be honest, but I need to be respectful. I refuse to share falsehoods or half-truths but I suspect that is what people ultimately want. How do I navigate the sometimes parallel, most times divergent paths of authenticity and social expectation?

This is especially hard in my writing.

I’m fascinated though, by the suggestion that it doesn’t really matter which path I choose, that no matter what I say, the simple acts of expressing myself on the page is, in some ways, aggressive. That just by writing, and therefore insinuating that I want others to read, I’m thrusting myself upon them. I can argue that others are free to choose, that they can read my words or leave them be, but maybe that freedom is not enough to negate the intention I establish by writing in the first place.

I am less fascinated by the idea that I return to participate in this act of possible aggression, that I’ve engaged in it tens of hundreds of times in the past five years. That seems fitting somehow–outlining the parts of the picture offered by interlocking pieces I didn’t even realize were missing. What fascinates me is that everyone else continues to participate. That people come here to engage in this possibly hostile exchange, that they listen as I ask them “listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.” I’m fascinated that I do the same on other people’s blog.

Perhaps that is what society is all about. We intrude upon each other, upon our sensibilities, simply to avoid being alone. We participate in this exchange, we allow ourselves to be imposed upon, because the alternative is solitude, and it scares us. To avoid being left alone we open ourselves up to invasion, by other peoples thoughts and opinions, by their words.

Sometime we will feel attacked. Sometimes we will feel vulnerable. But sometimes we will feel understood, validated and less alone. And for that reason we participate in the exchange. We return, again and again, despite the aggressiveness of the act.

What do you think of Didion’s suggestion? Do you believe writing “is an aggressive, even a hostile act”?


  1. Interesting take. I can see that. I know often I come to my blog as a release, but because there is no realtime response, no give-and-take in the writing of it, its me imposing my thoughts & views onto the readers. Once the comments come in its more of a discussion, but until then, its a diatribe and it feels GOOD sometimes to make my voice heard without interruption.

  2. It can be a hostile act, yes, depending on your intention.

    But it can also be a way to forge a connection with other people; to write down something so universal that a person reads it and thinks, “oh my god, I am not the only one who feels this way.”

    If the intention of your words is to secure your space, to claim, “This idea is mine,” then yes, words can be hostile. But often, in writing, I feel like I am a conduit, that the words are just a way to communicate something that is universal, too.

    Not sure if I am explaining myself well here, either. Damn phone.


  3. At first I was thinking that it’s a hostile act only if you inTEND for it to be a hostile act, consciously or subconsciously.

    Then I read further into the quote and your ruminations on it, and I thought, maybe it is a hostile act, if by hostile you mean to make someone else change.

    And finally I wondered if the spoken word was also a hostile act. And I don’t think so.

    You made me think! (But you weren’t aggressive 😉 )

    1. This question about the spoken word being hostile/aggressive is a good one. What makes all written words hostile, but not all spoken words? Loris point/question above convinces me that not all written words are hostile.

  4. As much as it is perhaps a hostile act, I think it can also be an act of love. For me, writing is not always a takeover of mental and emotional space. Sometimes writing *creates* space. It can build bridges, allowing us to reach each other. I don’t think any writing is as self-centered as Didion says, because it is, by nature co-dependent; we write (even, I’d argue, in our most private spaces) with the hope that someday it will be read. Otherwise, why bother committing words to posterity? And if we write knowing that/hoping that/wondering if we will be read, we make ourselves vulnerable. I’m not sure you can be hostile and vulnerable at the same time.

  5. Hmmm, as a writer, I feel more like a supplicant than a bully. I’m humbly entreating you to read my words, and tell me what you think. I like Justine’s idea that it can be an act of love, and it definitely is for me quite often. Perhaps it reflects what and how and why we write? How we came to write? What we want out of it?

    Though I do think it is possible to be hostile and vulnerable at the same time (to respond to Justine again). So much hostility I see in the world is simply a result of someone’s discomfort with their vulnerability. That goes for nation states as well as individuals!

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