Why I Write

Have you ever had a disagreement with someone, and in your frustration, you grow increasingly angry and defensive, rather than stopping the escalating terror and asking yourself, “Why am I angry?  Perhaps I can use better words to express myself.”  I’m not talking about swear words (although with some people, I’m sure this works exceptionally well) or a disagreement with someone who will hear no words, despite your efforts–in other words, they don’t know what they don’t know, as in, you can’t tell someone he’s a jerk if he doesn’t see himself as a jerk.  I’m talking about the ability to separate from yourself, so that you can see the real you and what it’s doing and how it’s reacting and what you might be doing to aggravate the situation.  This is the first step to awareness, I think.

It’s like that in books.  Sometimes you read the most astute thought or vivid description, and you have to pause to say, “Yes, that is how I’ve felt!”  Or, “I’ve seen such a thing!”  I’d wager that you’ll feel an affinity for the book, because you’ve been heard, you’ve felt validated.  You’re not so alone in the world.

When it comes to writing, I’ve always felt like the lost third-grader placed out in right field–both because the ball doesn’t go there often and it’s lonely out there, watching everything happen and trying to make sense of it.  And when something does happen, I miss the easy fly ball, and everyone’s upset.  Have you ever felt that way?

I’ve just finished a book that makes me feel there’s another soul out there who realizes the inadequacy of words, yet knows there’s something else in the reading of text–the reader’s experience, the reader’s thoughts–that, supposedly, will elevate (or deflate) your text into something you could never foresee.

I don’t know many writers who work like I do.  I need quiet.  I need to enter my “world” and stay there for a good five, six hours.  It helps if I’ve internalized any of my life’s suffering or pain or agony.  But I don’t mean you need pain and suffering.  I mean you need to have done the work of delving into your life, your thoughts, to see what it’s all about, then transform it into something else.  [In fact, I think this is why many memoirs, in my humble opinion, fall on their faces.  They’ve put pretty words on an ugly life experience, but they’ve failed to take the reader to another place–the place after the unsavory events.  I know there are those who disagree with me, but if you aren’t changed in any way by the events, then why tell about them?  I, for one, don’t want to hear about them.]

Here are a few quotes from Christian Wiman’s Ambition and Survival that resonated with me.  Perhaps you might find them valuable, too.  Keep in mind he’s speaking of poetry; I find the same to be true of prose.

“Which is to say: the craft that is adequate to one’s own deepening experience will be somehow poised between the injury or absence out of which it emerges and the restorative truth toward which it aspires.”

One I especially liked, because I sometimes feel lonely in a world that rushes by, swallowing words and thought, so that there is never an airing, never a conversation of the whys and hows.  I’ve been accused on a number of occasions by family members that I think too much, analyze too much.  I know this is true.  That’s me in a nutshell.  But I like that about me, so I’m keeping it.  What I am cognizant of, though, is that there might be a rift between me and the world, and that cannot be when you want your words to hit their mark.

Here’s the quote: “Poetry [I would insert “prose” also], like all the fine arts, even when they are apparently “public” in their orientation, is predicated on the existence of an inner life.  It assumes not only that humans have such a thing, but that it can be shared.  It assumes, moreover, that this transaction of interiors is integral not only to the life of the individual but also to the life of the culture.”

Another quote on the same topic: “Many of our oldest ways of understanding our world—myths, singularity and consistency of place, depth of engagement between successive generations—are being lost, are perhaps already lost in any culturally significant sense.  Whether our reliance on—and submission to—the image is a cause or an effect of these changes, we not live in a world that seems almost designed to eradicate the inner life.  When a real poem falls on such soil, how is it supposed to take root?”

And lastly from Wiman: “Art is like Christianity in this way: at its greatest, it can give you access to the deepest suffering you imagine—not necessarily dramatic suffering, not necessarily physical suffering, but the suffering that is in your nature, the suffering of which you must be conscious to fulfill your nature—and at the same time provide a peace that is equal to that suffering.  The peace is not in place of the sorrow; the sorrow does not go away.  But there is a moment of counterbalance between them that is both absolute tension and absolute stillness.  The tension is time.  The stillness is eternity.  With art, this peace is passing and always inadequate.  But there are times when the very splendid insufficiency of art—its “sumptuous Destitution– / Without a Name,” in Dickinson’s phrase—can point a person toward the peace that passeth understanding: George Herbert, Marilynne Robinson, T.S. Eliot…”

I write to make sense of the world.  I write to name things, to speak the truth.  I write because I want to survive my life.

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The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

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