I stole the title for this blog post from Joan Didion, who stole it from George Orwell, who probably stole it from someone before him. Today, I gave Didion’s article to my creative writing students for homework; they are to read the article, consider Didion’s reasons for writing, and, in one paragraph, explain why they write… or why they want to write. I’ve been thinking about this assignment all day — even throughout all the lectures I’ve given since this morning — and I have to admit, the assignment is hard, even for me!
Why do I write, indeed?
Didion says she writes to know her thoughts: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Didion wants to understand herself and her definitions of the world, and I wish I could say something as eloquent as her statement, but today, as I grew frustrated with my inability to compose an answer in my head to such a simple yet personal question, I found myself wanting to write myself out of my frustration, double meanings intended: I’m writing this blog post because I’m frustrated, and I’m writing this blog post with the intention of relieving myself of that frustration.
Writing, for me, is comforting, a meditation, a long stretched-out moment of silence, where I am petitioning that grace might be bestowed upon me and upon whomever may be on my mind at the moment. Right now, a colleague and dear friend is on my mind; we just got out of what was a lovely and lively meeting that quickly and abruptly turned in another direction (despite all my favorite people being there!). I wrote her what I hope was an encouraging email. I’m also thinking about Luis, a student who stayed after my last class to help me figure out the settings for my new Facebook student group page. He had eye surgery last week, and until then, he said he saw two of everything. Imagine seeing your entire world double, side-by-side, like looking through a view-master. And I’m thinking of Carlos and Denis, two openly gay boys in my English 102 class, who are so very much themselves, making jokes on day one that made the class fall in love with them; they even tease me! This afternoon, when I went off on a tangent about Freud and Lacan while I was in the middle of explaining the three classical appeals, logos, ethos, and pathos, Carlos said, “You go, professor!” and snapped his head with attitude. I write to celebrate the braver-than-me’s, the tougher-than-I-will-ever-be’s, the I-don’t-care-what-you-think-about-my-sexuality voices that are out there, among us, among me, ready to share their courage in the face of complaints, special needs, and homophobia.
I also write to share and archive my life so I can remember it, look back on it, so that someday it can be helpful to me. Selfish, right? Well, writing is a selfish practice. I’m sitting here alone, late, long after most people have left campus, when no student or colleague can interrupt me, just so I can write. Sweet silence, how great thou art. I know I’m supposed to be thinking of my audience — isn’t that what I teach my students? — but, instead, I’m thinking about myself, my word choices, my sentence patterns. I write to press into place words as precisely as a laborer presses bricks into the earth to make a path for someone else or for himself. This morning I was talking to a colleague, who came into my office at lunchtime because she could smell my pizza! She asked about my well-being and I told her about the boredom of AA meetings; the same people share the same stories, or different people share the same stories; either way, the stories follow the same turbulent, up-and-down, rock-bottom, slowly ascending narrative arcs. I told my colleague, AA meetings are kind of like a handrail. You need to hold onto it in order to climb the stairs; it never changes, so you can trust it; it’s a consistent form of support; boring, yes, but reliable, definitely. She said, “You’re such a writer.”
I am a writer. This morning in my Introduction to Literature class, as we were discussing John Updike’s “A&P”, one of my students asked me if I had ever gotten into a confrontation. I said, “All I have to defend myself is language and poetry.” The class laughed, but I meant it, and I think they knew I meant it, too.
Realizing this “Why I Write” assignment would be hard, I challenged myself to write my own response to Didion’s and Orwell’s essays. Through this process, I suppose I can conclude that I write to celebrate other stronger characters in my life (and that includes those found in fiction). Today, some of those characters faced challenges. I write to capture some of their courage in the hopes that some of it will feed into me, to strengthen some of my weaknesses, to answer some of my questions, and to compose something I can look back on, a sturdy long walkway, a path from history to the future, brick by brick, word by word. Yes, that’s why I write. And I didn’t quite know the answer(s) until after I wrote them down in this piece, but it’s also true that I write because it’s the only thing I know to do. It’s all I have. All I have is language and poetry.