Why I Write

Poets & Writers magazine, which is something of the gold standard of magazines for writerly types, has a section in it called "Why We Write."  Every other month, someone shares their reasons for doing this ridiculous thing that we do.

I like the section, so I decided to write my own.

Unfortunately, I was never able to find out how to go about submitting to P&W, so this was quickly forgotten about.  It's probably in need of a few rounds of editing and re-writes, but once my queries fell on deaf ears, I didn't see the point.

Anyway, here it is, completely untouched since I churned it out:

            My father once compared my writing to softball.  More specifically, he likened the writing that I do to the softball that he plays.
             It was towards the end of dinner, and I think I could actually hear my wife biting her tongue.  I don’t write for a living.  Writing, for me, has all the outward appearances of a hobby, not unlike my father playing softball in the 65+ “silver league.”  On paper, I suppose he had a point, or at least something that closely resembled a point to him.

            The most obvious rebuttal was to ask him if he was still trying to make it into the Majors, if he was still waiting to get that call to “the show.”  Because while my father has always played softball in his free time – something he has quite a bit more off these days – it’s not as if he’s hoping these softball games turn into something greater; it’s not as if he’s hoping to be discovered by a scout, or offered a Major League contract on the spot.  He’s not trying to catch someone’s eye with his bat or glove.

            That is, of course, exactly what I’m doing.  It’s what I’m doing every time I send a story out.  It’s what I’m doing every time I go online and interact with people, leaving a link to my web site at the end of every conversation.  It’s what I’m doing right now as I compose this column for Poets & Writers.  I love writing, but there’s always a practical element to it that creeps in.

            Still, this is a logical argument to make.  It is not, however, why my wife was biting her tongue, or why my cousin, an aspiring writer herself, was aghast at my father’s comparison.  Because to anyone who writes, or anyone close to someone who writes, the suggestion that it is in someway comparable to recreational sports is incomprehensible.

            My dad plays softball for exercise and comradery, both of which he could get elsewhere.  There is no replacement for writing.

            My father also plays softball because it’s fun for him, because he enjoys it.  I would hazard a guess that his entire team feels the same way, and that his entire league would also agree.  I would also hazard a guess that every single writer, successful or not, has had moments when writing isn’t just not fun, it’s painful.  For all the good that comes of it, writing has a tendency to hurt us.

            Yet we keep doing it.

            Every other month, when I get my latest issue of P&W, I invariable go directly to the “Why We Write” column.  I do so out of morbid curiosity, like watching a nature show about salmon.  I always enjoy the column, but can’t help but be left with the feeling that each author is either very good at fooling themselves or completely insane.

            When I was little, writing was a way of focusing my overactive imagination.  My stories were scribbled on tiny notepads and mostly featured imaginary adventures of comic book characters.

When I was in high school, it was a way of giving myself the illusion of control.  I could be anyone in these stories.  My Smith Carona word processor gave me the power to be a vigilante, to fight ogres and trolls, and, more often than not, to actually have sex.

When I was in college, it was about challenging the status quo.  It was about saying “fuck” a lot and attacking religion and any other long established institutions that presented themselves.

In graduate school, it was some strange attempt at saying something new about “the human condition.”  I had big, bold feelings, and I was sure that they were important, that they said something profound that would surely affect others. 

In my 20’s, it was about finding some strange and unusual subject matter than no one else had touched.  Warehouse party on the bad side of town?  I was there.  Homeless man on the street corner?  I’d spend an hour talking to him.  People had to know what was going on, and they had to know it through my eyes.

At some point, it even became about telling good stories.

            At any given point in my life, had you asked me why I wrote, you would have gotten a different answer, if I was even self- aware enough to go beyond “because I have to.”  But how is that possible, that my reason for writing would change so much?  Do our reasons for doing anything else change like that?

            But those weren’t reasons; they were justifications.  I took something amorphous and shaped it how I needed it to be shaped at that specific time in my life; it filled whatever void I had at that time – and without me even realizing it.

            That’s the one, constant thread that has run through each year of my writing life: I don’t know what I’m doing while I do it.  Perhaps, at some point in the future, I’ll be able to make some vague generalization about it, but I’ll never truly understand it.  I will never be able to define it.

            I don’t know what’s going to come out when I sit down to write.  Sure, I can start with a reference point, be it beginning, middle, or end, but I don’t know where any of it will lead.  I don’t know where it’s coming from and I don’t know why, I just know that it is.

            I consider writing to be part of the journey, and if I ever arrive at the destination than there will be no point in continuing to travel.  Coming to a conclusion in writing is like coming to the conclusion of life and you don’t get to do it anymore.  If you’ve found enlightenment, if you’ve figured out why we’re here, if you met your higher power, than you no longer keep looking, you no longer keep asking.  You no longer write.

            Why do I write?  I have no idea, which is exactly why I do.