I was recently asked to write an essay titled Why I Write. This is the result.
This is one of those questions that drive me crazy. Really, it’s one of those questions that make me stare at the blank screen and wish it would go away. I have never been any good at self analysis. I’m not comfortable talking about myself. I prefer to tell my characters stories, not mine. I feel as if whatever I type sounds pretentious. Because ultimately this is the questions of why do we do anything that we love? Especially those things that highlight our weaknesses, that put us in the vulnerable position of being judged or failing. Why do I play golf when the stupid ball won’t go into the hole no matter how much I will it to? Why do I play my fiddle when it would be so much nicer to just sit and listen to a brilliant musician who makes the instrument and the music come together in a perfect marriage rather than a relationship on the way to a therapist? Why do I paint pictures that stack up in the closet until it’s time to reuse the canvas? Why, why, why? I don’t know. I often wonder why the things I do for enjoyment are frequently not enjoyable. I don’t think I’m a glutton for punishment. But, the fact is I prefer to try my hand at something and fail miserably rather than sit around and watch other people do it well. So what is it that I love? It’s the challenge, it’s the process, and it’s the discovery. I am in love with the process of discovery.
When I was in second grade I wrote a story about my life as a chair. I imagined what it would be like to have all different people sit in me, fat people, skinny people, babies whose feet barely touched the floor, and restless kids who kicked my legs with abandon. I wish I still had that story. I don’t really remember all the details, and I’m probably remembering it as way more profound than it was, but I do know that the seed for why I write was planted back then in those early years. I write to discover. I write to discover places, I write to discover individual people and I write to discover the heart of humanity. That sounds big. It almost scares me it’s so big. But I’ll go on, because as I said it’s about discovery. This right here, right now, is the discovery of me. Not easy. I’ve never found myself too fascinating a subject. But what more is there?
I write to play, I write to challenge myself, and I write to slow myself down. (Ahhh. I think I’ve found the kernel. Now it is time to hold it over the fire and watch it pop.) Slowing down, taking the time, listening. This is the hardest part of the writing process, of any process; to slow myself down enough so that I am completely in the truth of the moment. Sanford Meisner was an acting coach who said, (and I’m paraphrasing) that acting is behaving truthfully in imaginary circumstances. It is the same with writing and storytelling. The characters are imaginary and they are placed in imaginary circumstances, but it is my job, my task, my joy to find the truth, to write what I see, not what I think I see. In my world writing and painting are deeply connected. The words are my brushes. When I paint I struggle to capture the values of colors, the subtle changes as one object interplays with another, as the light combines with the shape. Writing is really no different, except the palette is emotion and sound and meaning, not color.
And of course, through all this I am attempting to tell a story. It is easy to become so enamored with the beauty of my flowing prose, with my finely drawn rendition of a character, but that is not what writing is about for me. Ultimately it is the story. We love stories, sitting around the campfire or in front of the big screen. It is the stories that pull us forward. It is the story that gets us thinking, that takes us out of ourselves and into the characters, so that we experience their lives. We shine a light on a moment in time, on a sequence of events that make us bigger than we are. And there is the most incredible satisfaction in knowing that someone has read something I’ve written and enjoyed it. Maybe because I feel that I have connected, even if I never meet the person, never talk to them about what they read and why it moved them, but I feel as if once the story is out there, I am out there as well. I am meeting people. I am on an adventure. When my kids were young we had a favorite book that we read called Paddle to the Sea. It was about a little wooden canoe that a child had placed in one of the Great Lakes and we followed it as it made its way to the sea. When I put a story out into the world it is like that little canoe. I don’t know where it goes. I only sense that the adventure is possible, that my story itself becomes a story and I find that very satisfying.
So I’m back to the original question. Why do I write? I don’t know if I’ll ever know the answer. I have a definite love hate relationship with the process. I ask myself all the time, why am I doing this? But I continue. And in the end I can only come to the conclusion that I write because I can’t not write. Hopefully this doesn’t sound too pretentious but I write because on the deepest level it fulfills a need in me: a need to tell a story, a need to understand, a need to connect, and a need to make people smile.