Why I write

Bracketing out all the violence and tragedy in the world just now–of which there is too, too much–I’ve been remembering why I started writing in the first place.  I was thirteen, and didn’t have a ‘best friend’. So I picked up a pen and a pad of paper (I think it may have been pink; I still have it somewhere), and began.

Throughout the long trial that is the teenage years, I wrote. I wrote out of anguish and confusion. I wrote to figure things out, hoping that understanding would make me feel better. Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes I just became more frustrated. Once I threw the three-ring binder full of all my musings and very bad poetry. It hit the wall and opened up, scattering paper all over the room. Why I collected it all and put it back, I have no idea. It was nothing, just the produce of a troubled head, including some pretty exquisite examples of terrible teenage poetry.

Over the last 30-odd years, I have continued to write. Mostly out of anguish, still. Sometimes because I wanted to reflect on the days speeding past, as they do with young children. I never wrote enough of that: I wish I had written more about their first words and first steps, and the silly things they did. I rely on my faulty memory for all that, and it is no good–a source of maternal guilt (read: anguish). And so I write. It doesn’t always help. But the pen has become my trusted friend over the years, and a blank page can sometimes feel like an open door to a familiar place. After all, I have made myself at home and poured out heart and soul on college-ruled (yes, never wide-ruled) sheets, and books (preferably blank, not lined), for more than two-thirds of my life.

After all that time, I might expect to have above-average self-knowledge. At least. Maybe even excellent self-knowledge. But no: I still pick up a pen to find out what I think, what’s really bothering me. Usually, my soul yields up its secrets to the paper. None of it is earth-shattering: I discover that I am feeling guilty about something I have done or failed to do, or I am worried about something that I ought to do. Occasionally, I am surprised to find that ideas are bouncing around in my head, desperate to make their way to the pen and out onto the page.

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a writer. So I became a writer. Nobody pays me to do this writing. Only very occasionally do the ideas that escape the confines of my brain make it to publication. Heck, they hardly ever make it onto the blog, even. But that isn’t what defines me as a writer. When I was 17, I went to a writers’ conference held (I think) at Loyola Marymount University. B. Kliban was there, talking about his cats and his surfing. John Irving was there, reading from A Prayer for Owen Meany. (I admit I have still never read the book.) But it wasn’t those that stayed with me. It was the lecture by Richard Mitchell, on the topic, ‘Write for your life’. I bought the cassette tapes. I can still remember the last words clearly, though I can’t explain perfectly how he arrived at them. He must have been telling us something about originality, I suppose, because as he drew to a close, he was comparing the moon and the sun. He finished with, ‘Do not shine. Do not seek to shine. Burn.’ I don’t know whether I burn or not, but I still want to.

I’m still a writer, not by profession so much as temperament and habit. I’m not even really sure why I am writing this on my blog and not in a journal to be shelved and never to see the light of day. Perhaps it is because I hope that someone else will say (even if not aloud), ‘Yes, I know what you mean’. Maybe it’s because somehow, when I write (even if I am writing on a page nobody else will ever see), I find out the most important thing of all: that I am not alone.

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