Yesterday, my friend Susan sent out, via Facebook, what I deemed to be a cry for help–she asked her fellow writer friends to tell her what sustains their writing lives, what keeps them going amidst all the rejections and the seeming disinterest of the world at large, or heck, what makes them sit down every day when the writing itself isn’t going all that well. This is what I told her:
“This is what I tell myself when I start asking those questions: the stories that enter your brain come to you and you alone, and that means that no one else can write them quite like you can. And because you have no way of knowing who needs to and will read what you write, you also have no way of knowing whose life may be saved by your stories. So sit back down and type and trust that, no matter how long it takes or how many times you have to restart, what you need to write, you will write. It will make its way into the world in the time and means by which it is meant to, and because of your fortitude and insistence on not squandering your gift, you may inspire someone else to do the same. You may, in fact, be saving that person’s life. And that’s not wishful thinking–it’s the God’s honest truth.”
I got a handful of Facebook thumbs-up for that response, and quite a few people responded to Susan’s question as well, with varying degrees of encouragement. But the question is a good one, an important one, enough so that I’ve decided it warrants a more expansive answer than the one I gave on Facebook, and therefore, that means it warrants a blog post. So let me tell you why else I write, and in case my reasons aren’t good enough, I’m going to back them up with reasons why other (read: famous) people write.
I write because Lord Byron said, “If I don’t write to empty my mind I go mad.” I have voices talking to me, people, and if I don’t write them out, they get louder. They gather musical instruments and play them like a band of drunken third graders. Then the drumming starts. The only way to stop all of this racket is to write. Really, that should be reason enough, but I’ll give you some more.
I write because Anthony de Mello said, “The shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story.” I am often misunderstood. Maybe it’s because I don’t articulate myself very well in face-to-face conversation, or maybe it’s because I’m just not as quick on my feet as I’d like to be. But maybe it’s because people listen a whole lot better when they’re being told (or reading) a story, and thanks to the old writer’s adage of “show, don’t tell,” it’s a lot more effective to convey truth by showing it to someone, rather than smacking him across the face with it. I write to explain myself, to explain others. If only all our conversations could evolve along the lines of, “Let me tell you a story…”
I write because Thomas Berger said, “Why do writers write? Because it isn’t there.” Stories burn inside of us for all kinds of reasons, but I believe one of the primary ones is because there is a “something” in each story that is yet unknown. And the only way to make it known is to write it. True, it has been argued that there is never anything new to say, and maybe there isn’t. But Flannery O’Connor said, “There is always a new way to say it,” and it could be that the way I have to say something will be the way that makes that “thing” click for someone like no other way could.
I write because in I Timothy 4:14, Paul said, “Do not neglect your gift,” and in II Timothy 3:16, he said, “All scripture is God-breathed,” which means the command to not neglect one’s gift is a direct order from God. I believe writing is my gift, though it may sometimes feel like a curse, and that means I have a duty to attend to and make use of it. Because in Romans 11:29, Paul said, “For God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable,” so really, I don’t have a choice but to write. On I go.
I write because Bruce Pratt said, “Why do I write? To discover the gods I don’t believe in.” Writing helps me make sense of the world, or at least try to, and a big part of that is understanding why people do the things they do, especially when those people don’t believe, behave, live, move, speak, or see as I do. And sometimes, it’s when they do. In order to understand anyone, I have to step inside that person’s skin, and that cannot be done without compassion. I believe, if you let it, writing can’t help but make you a more empathetic person, even towards those who couldn’t be more different than you.
I write because, in “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” Wallace Stevens said, “I know my lazy, leaden twang / Is like the reason in a storm; / And yet it brings the storm to bear. / I twang it out and leave it there.” Maybe all of this is bunk. Maybe there’s no reason for any of it. Maybe writing is like trying to scream at the rain to stop pouring. Or maybe writing is the storm, and heaven knows, this world needs rain. Maybe the bravest thing we can do is throw our wind into the tempest.
I write because Amy Hempel said, “I could claim any number of high-flown reasons for writing, just as you can explain certain dogs’ behavior…But maybe, it’s that they’re dogs, and that’s what dogs do.” Who am I, if not a writer? How would I even begin to attempt making sense of anything at all, if I didn’t write about it? I have words floating through my veins like inner tubes on a river. There’s no changing a condition like that.
And finally, I write because the venerable Jack Driscoll said, in the last letter he wrote to me as my advisor, “Those who persist fanatically…are the ones who wake up each morning as writers, and without apology. It’s what we do; it’s who we are, and to define us differently is to ask that another self–one that would deaden our equilibrium–replace how we meet this world we’re trying so hard to be attentive to.” And that’s just it–I write because I can’t not write. I could get a book deal tomorrow or die without ever seeing another word of mine in print, and I would never stop writing. It’s not even a question.