Reflecting on Why We Write

Reflecting on Why We Write

It’s a peculiar club. At least for some of us. Marked by long solitary mindwalks prompted by a person or a thought which leads to a question and then another question. Until we realize the only way to rid ourselves of it is to write.

Every once in a while, I come across another writer who explains, like Flannery O’Connor does:

I don’t think literature would be possible in a determined world. We might go through the motions but the heart would be out of it. Nobody could then ‘smile darkly and ignore the howls.’ Even if there were no Church to teach me this, writing two novels would do it. I think the more you write, the less inclined you will be to rely on theories like determinism. Mystery isn’t something that is gradually evaporating. It grows along with knowledge.

And again, more famously, here:

I have to write to discover what I am doing. Like the old lady, I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say; then I have to say it again.

The italics are mine. That second statement nails it. Seeing the words on the blank page elicit all the questions being asked by that thought. “Is this right”? “Does this feel possible”? “Does this idea fit”? Whether about a character in one of my books or a stranger who sparks something, a desire to understand. It’s all the same. And O’Connor’s words make me smile. The more you write, the greater is the mystery.

I remember a conversation about writing while I was working to complete my doctoral dissertation while working a more than full-time job. The conversation epitomizes why I have felt compelled to write for all of my adult life. My dissertation chair was also my program advisor and during the almost ten years that it took for me to complete my doctorate at the School of Public Health in Houston, Steve and I became very good friends. The conversation took place at a very difficult time in the design of the methodology for my study and I was working harder than I had ever worked in my life.

Taking a virtual break from the tough subject matter, I was beginning to believe I would complete this degree and would soon face the fact that ten years of work would be over. I would be done; I was more than a little worried about what that would mean to me for I was beginning to suspect that the granting of the degree would not resolve the restlessness I was feeling in my career and in my personal life.

Allowing my mind to wander, I wondered out loud what it might be like to be on the faculty and to work in a more “intellectual” environment than mine. Smiling and seemingly with total comprehension of the dilemma I was facing, Steve began to talk about the politics of the University, letting me know that his environment was every bit as rife with power, competition and jealousy as my own. He said that his writing was his outlet, that it was a good thing that he had to write to maintain tenure because the desire came to him quite naturally. “I write”, Steve said, “in order to know what I think.”

I don’t think that Steve ever read Flannery O’Connor but the similarity of his words to hers is more than coincidence.

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