Friday, June 25, 2010

Why Write?

"Words form the thread on which we string our experiences."
~ Aldous Huxley

Why do I write? That's what I should have called this post, but it sounded too narcissistic. Ten years ago, the answer would have been simple: "It's what I do for a living." But now, given the recession, given the cheapening of writing by online content mills, writing barely pays the bills. I think about the other things I might have done with my life. My husband says I should have studied criminal law because of my tendency to question people relentlessly. My fascination with the human mind and brain tells me I should have considered neuroscience. Once I planned to be a painter, but an art school painting teacher told me I was not allowed to write on my canvases — I was making cartoons, not art, he said. In a fit of youthful pique, I quit painting and decided to write. And I continue to write. Here are some of my reasons why; I would love to hear from other writers about their own reasons.

1. It's genetic. Words were important in my family. We revered them and we played with them. My father loved poetry and occasionally read it to us at the dinner table; Leaves of Grass was a favorite. When he'd had a few, he'd choose something less lofty and ignore the family's groans — Robert Service's "Dangerous Dan McGrew" was a favorite. My soft-spoken mother, leader of the groaning chorus, also loved words, loved spending a quiet Sunday afternoon with the New York Times crossword puzzle. Sitting with her, trying to work out the clues, my vocabulary expanded; by the time I was six or seven it was so freakishly large that people would try to stump me. 

2. Writing helps me recognize what matters. I learned this in elementary school, when I first kept a daily journal. As I looked back on old entries, I discovered that a test or spat with a friend that had me in a frenzy in October was completely forgotten by April. Perspective!

3. Most of my friends are writers. It's been this way since high school, when my wannabe-beatnik crowd soaked up Sartre and Nietzsche and wrote bleak poems about alienation and angst; the effort to fit feelings into words connected us. 

4. Writing helps me understand what I think. This post is an excellent example. As I write it I repeatedly stop and interrogate myself: Is that what I really mean?

5. When I speak, I sometimes babble. Words tumble out in a disordered jumble, as if they've formed a mob at the door of my mouth and pushed until my lips finally burst open. At least when I write, I can edit myself.  

"Words differently arranged have a different meaning, and meanings differently arranged have a different effect."
~ Blaise Pascal


  1. Yes number 5.

    I write because I think I have something to say, but want it to be slow and well considered and my best self. My writing self is the liberally edited, fictional me.

  2. "the liberally edited, fictional me" — I love that. Thanks, Julia.