Why Write?

book stacks

Do articles and blogs bombard your email inbox the way they do mine? On top of the important news, intriguing essays, and inspirational nuggets delivered digitally every day, books fill the shelves in my house and are stacked in every place I might sit down to read. Even though I work in a library, I still get a thrill out of browsing in bookstores.

Why then would I add to the volume of words our information age is already exploding with? I just turned 60, so this is not an idle question. Why spend the time I hold dear writing? When I was 35, laboring on a novel, I wanted to be a bestselling author. Even now that I’m happily earning a living as a librarian, I wouldn’t complain if my blog suddenly went viral or if I were named poet laureate of Santa Cruz. But when the garden languishes for want of my tending and my sweetheart wants to go on a bike ride with me, those pipe dreams are not good enough reasons to spend time scribbling in my notebook. 

So why bother? 

My writing friends have different answers to this fundamental and deeply personal question. “We’re all just piles of sand,” one said when we talked about this recently. “If sand could write, it would.” The human person is meant to work, to be of service. Of course, people who are overworked can rightfully complain that too much work is exhausting and soul-draining, but the opposite of the old aphorism is also true: all play and no work makes us dull too. Artists create, writers write. It’s what we do. But what if your innate drive gets stifled somehow? Another friend called on the artist’s sense of responsibility. “Who are you not to write?” she mused. “To share what only you can give voice to?”

For some of us, writing is personal. One friend writes to process. Through the alchemy of writing, a painful experience can be transformed into something beautiful. “Writing is medicine,” another said. In fact, Carolyn Brigit Flynn, the beloved teacher who originally brought us all together, calls what she teaches “writing to feed the soul.” This is certainly true for me. Writing nourishes me, and I often turn to my journal in lieu of a therapist.

Like Joan Didion, I also write to find out what I think, whether it’s sorting out an environmental issue or exploring my own anxieties and aspirations. I delight in discovery, the surprises that sometimes burble up from secret places when I’m working on a poem. Was that insight waiting in my subconscious all along, or was it just this minute delivered from the Divine? “The writing of poems must be counted as much a contemplative practice,” Jane Hirshfield writes in Ten Windows, “as a communicative one.”

Indeed, while writing is personal for me, it is also, obviously, about communicating. I’m currently looking for an agent for my novel; I submit poems to journals and publish this blog. Something impels me to share. Is it just that old desire for acclaim I had when I longed to write a bestseller? Maybe, but I don’t think so. The friend for whom writing is medicine explained that the real magic happens when she reads her work aloud in a circle of women and is witnessed. As reader and listener as well as writer, I agree.

An old adage claims that there are three ingredients for happiness: something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to. In a busy life already full of words, why do I bother putting more on a page? When I was younger, I wanted a product. Now, it’s all about process: reflection, discovery, sharing, healing. The challenge of trying to write well both torments and stimulates me, and when I feel I’ve succeeded, it delivers an intellectual pleasure without compare. Quite simply, I write because it gives me joy. 

What is your art, and why do you bother? I look forward to hearing from you!