Why write?

woman-writingI am feeling inspired by something my friend Carly posted on her blog recently. A published and award-winning writer, in this beautiful and thoughtful piece she examines why and how she writes. Like many people with an artistic or creative streak, I sometimes feel that choosing to write isn’t actually a choice. It’s something that needs to happen, a force greater than oneself. It is something that can be denied, suppressed, and forgotten about….for a while. But it will never, ever disappear.

I suppose that for me the writing seed was planted at a young age – I am that cliched introverted, shy, sensitive child who was always observing, trying to figure things out. I read a lot and I wanted to copy what I was reading, so I wrote poems and short stories about my pets and toys. I have a very vivid imagination and think visually, so writing came easily to me. Add to that potent mix some teachers who praised my writing and told me I would be an author when I grew up. As I grew older, I wrote mostly academic things for school and university and the praise still came. I’ve had a few paid writing gigs over the years and the accolates and the money came. But by choice, I now write solely for myself and find my income elsewhere.

So why write? Because writing is a way of processing the world, of making sense of my experience. As the venerable Joan Didion once said, “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.” And it gives life meaning – it’s a method of making life’s lemons into lemonade. If art can come from tragedy, heartbreak, betrayal, hardship, death, then maybe that experience has more value. And through writing, one can also revel in the beauty of the world, to not only lament its sorrows, but celebrate its joys.

And then there’s the unpredictable, mysterious journey of writing. It’s one of the few things that puts me in a state of flow, in the zone where the conscious mind is seduced by the subconscious. Where you start at one place with no idea of where you’ll end up, but with a knowing that where you do end up is where you need to be. Things emerge that you couldn’t understand or figure out with your conscious mind. Answers are found. There is a sacredness in that experience. It is mystical and magical, and brings one back into one’s self, a kind of mental yoga.

Writing is also a way of recording one’s own development. Looking back at things I wrote in my journal 15 years ago, I laugh at the silly things I was upset or obsessed about. And I hope that the things I vomit-write into my journal now I can look back on in years to come and see how far I have come and how far I still have to go. Documenting this journey through words is a way to understand the peaks and the valleys, a way of connecting the dots.

Perhaps most importantly, writing is a way of learning (and practicing) that the destination is the journey, that the act of writing is its own reward. That, to borrow an Anne Lamott quote mentioned by Carly, writing is “like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony.”


wordsIn a memoir I read recently, the narrator writes about the time when he met the woman who would become his wife. She wrote poetry, he said. During their courtship, they would spend hours writing and reciting poems to each other. These words slowly began to dislodge something inside of me…poetry, poems, poet. And then, a flicker of recognition: Hey! I know what that is! I used to do that! I used to be good at that!

Rewind to the Christmas before last. I was in New Zealand in my hometown and I bumped into an old friend I used to be quite close with. Petite and blond, she bares a striking resemblance to Kylie Minogue and was visiting from London. We took the same poetry writing course at university, as part of our English degrees (she got hers, along with a law degree, I downgraded mine to a minor). She asked me if I still wrote poetry. I said “Um, not really.” She replied, “That’s a shame. You were really good. You could do something with it.” A nice compliment and an interesting thought, but still, too traumatized and burnt out from graduate school, which I was only halfway through, I did not put pen to paper.

Fast forward to a year later. Just a few months ago, on a whim, my coworker in Seoul  invited me to a yoga class. It was in a dingy building in Seoul’s version of Chinatown for white people. All five of us fit snuggly into the room, which we shared with a little hamster named Pete. (The teacher warmed me that while free-roaming Pete usually keeps a low profile, he might pop out from his hangout to spend some time with us. And, indeed, at one point, as I am easing into downward dog, my eyes meet with a pair of little black shiny eyes, whiskers and a tail. Pete is staring me right in the face, as if to say, “Hey, you’re new here, aren’t you?” I let out a high-pitched princess-worthy scream, and he quickly scuttles away. Unfortunately, my friend tells me a few weeks later, Pete froze to death in what was one of the coldest winters in recent memory).

After the class, I noticed that the guy who came late looks familiar. We get talking and soon enough, I find out that he was also in that poetry writing class all those years ago on the other side of the world. He is working here too, the same kind of university gig. He also tells me that another guy from the class is around these parts too. Quite a high number considering that there were only 12 of us in the class.

This random meeting brings back a flood of memories from that time. Why I write about it now is because I think it is kind of funny, kind of cliched. The professor for that class was a very talented, famous/notorious American writer who was known for being difficult to get along with but also for shaping some of New Zealand’s best writing talent. Some of the students had moved cities and universities to be in this class. Past students had gone on to write books and win awards.

Our seminars involved sitting around a long table and critiquing our work which was submitted anonymously. We were the Stoner, the Hippy, the Reverand’s Wife, the Farmer’s Wife, the Bohemian, the Hipster, the Wounded Child, the Sophisticate, the Rastafarian, the Intellectual, the Goth and me. My creations, which were about family, travel, relationships, and of course sex and death, were called ‘inane’, ‘banal’, and ‘vapid.’ I had to run to the library to look in the dictionary to see what these words meant at the end of each session.

To celebrate the end of our course, we went to the teacher’s cabin-like house in a small community on the coast known for its large population of artists, musicians, sailors and people with substance abuse issues. We sat around, listening to Dr. Dre (amazing poet, according to the professor) and drinking cheap red wine from a cask. And then, one of our classmates comes late. He sits down and looks confused. He looks like he’s on the verge of a panic attack. We talk to him and try to pry out of him what is wrong. His agitation increases as he relays the day’s events: he took some LSD, and now he feels like he is turning into a woman. He is trapped inside the wrong body. He wants us to help him get out. Whhaaaaat?

Yes, that happened. Of course it happened. He talks some more about how he is feeling and we try to comfort him. Someone eventually has the idea of massaging his shoulders in order to bring him back into reality. But now, the atmosphere is too weird. We eventually drop the guy home and we all go our separate ways.

So after submitting my poems to the university’s anthology and having them rejected, I pretty much stopped writing poetry. I mean, you can’t make money from it. It doesn’t really have much of a purpose – it’s not like it’s going to end world hunger or stop global warming.

moonThen again, there is something sacred and beautiful about the gentle act of stringing words together that is an expression of your innermost self. Like gliding along alone in a sailboat on a moonlit lake. Maybe it’s worth doing it for the sake of just doing it – for the performance of it, the process. A creative gesture. Poet Jack Gilbert once said in an interview something along the lines of how tragic it is that we are not hungrier to find and express the diamonds inside of ourselves.

Thankfully, Pablo Neruda, one of my favorite poets, was. And hopefully I will be again, too.

…And that’s why I have to go back
to so many places
there to find myself
and constantly examine myself
with no witness but the moon
and then whistle with joy,
ambling over rocks and clods of earth,
with no task but to live,
with no family but the road.

(Pablo Neurda)