At the end of my interview at Talking Writing, I was asked to ask a question for the next writer who would be interviewed. I asked, “Why do you write? Not how or when or with what technological device, but why?” (Worried that my question sounded a bit aggressive, I offered an alternative: “Where do you stand on the subject of Gertrude Stein?”)
I conceived of the question in the context of, What would I most want to talk about with another writer? Like, if we were getting coffee, what would I want to talk about? Because what usually happens when you have coffee or a meal with a writer is you talk about do you know this person and how did it go when you got published there and did they really screw such and such up so badly on your new book? Even when you get together with friends who are writers you talk about how do you like your job and do you think you’ll have another baby and you didn’t tell me you got another story published and when can we get together and have a cosmo? (Over cosmos, you talk about the same topics.)
So I asked that question as a way of cutting to the heart of the heart of the matter. But then on the first day of class last week, a graduate student in my creative nonfiction workshop asked me point blank, and apropos of nothing, Why do you write?
I was on teacher mode. I was on first night of class mode, first impressions mode, still kinda on break mode, and on what are all your names and what are you expecting from this course mode. So I stalled a bit by saying, wow, great question! I asked the same question at the end of an interview!
And it is a great question, and I really didn’t want to blow it off, but I was really unprepared to answer it. I babbled a bit in reply. It was genuine, but it was babble. (Certainly one reason I write is that I suck at talking.) The students, of course, were eminently articulate as they went around the room and introduced themselves and said they wrote to make sense of things, to share their stories, to figure something out, to make people laugh, and even to improve upon the bad writing they’ve seen published.
I’ve been around the literary block, so these are wonderful as well as familiar reasons, and they speak to my own reasons in some cases, but they also are not quite what I was trying to say. I’ve been trying to figure it out for almost two weeks, why I write. Here’s what I’ve come up with.
I write because:
1. It’s an act of contemplation and resistance.
Everything else in this life is anti-contemplative, and everything pulls everyone like a muscular wave in the same direction. When you look at the long shore line, you can hardly tell how far away you’ve been carried. And when you do figure it out, you can start swimming against the cultural current, but you won’t get back where you were. You’ll probably just get exhausted and drown. Writing is an anchor that makes you both aware of the pull and (a bit more) resistant to its power.
I don’t know if my metaphor is holding up, so I’ll abandon that ship to say simply that writing demands concentration and contemplation. Universities call it critical thinking. But creative writing is critical thinking with a different kind of stakes. It’s more personal, and thus more powerful. It’s also more mysterious, which also makes it more powerful – like it’s got the gods on its side.
2. La- la- la- language. STOP
Language is used to persuade and entertain and persuade and entertain and it never seems to end whether it’s email or twitter or TV or more TV or phone calls or spam or your child’s principal or your child or your child’s friend calling your child or texting your child or your child texting you or your child asking what’s for dinner, which is neither persuasive nor entertaining.
I think of literary language as language that uses language differently. And more importantly it acts like the command on a telegram: STOP. It is written, for one, so it acts as an object or artifact for study. It can be read and reread, looked at with a microscope or from a different angle. It doesn’t just dissolve into nothing. To really encounter it, one must stop. Read. Reread.
But lots of things are written and can be reread. Literary writing demands a settling in, an attention, a different posture of the reader as well as the writer. The writer is saying, STOP, achtung, baby. Here’s a different way of using language, here’s a story you haven’t heard, an image you haven’t imagined, and it will strengthen your brain muscle and your heart muscle.
3. The Big Bang Theory
I’m having a classic writer’s dilemma: my title for this section is not really accurate, but it feels right and I want to keep it. I’m thinking of the explosive, intensive, expansive experience of creation – of creating. That feeling when the brain makes its shift from left to right, when you’ve been tunneling through the darkness and land upon…er, coal? Well, whatever it is you were tunneling for.
The Big Bang as a term connotes explosions and beginnings, and it’s practically onomatopoetic, but I think I’m talking about a more active, old testament, Genesis, Let There Be Light kind of thing: And there was evening and there was morning.
And it was good.