Why We Write (And Why We Don’t)
September 24, 2016
What Poetry Is
In the words of Stanley Kunitz:
“Poetry is the medium of choice for giving our most hidden self a voice— the voice behind the mask that all of us wear. Poetry says, ‘You are not alone in the world: All your fears, anxieties, hopes, despairs are the common property of the race.’ In a way, poetry is the most private of all the arts, and yet is is public, too, a form of social bonding. It gains its power from the chaos at its source, the untold secrets of the self. The power is in the mystery of the word.”
Why We Write
The urge to make poetry goes way back, back to a time when poetry and song were essentially one.
My sister taught me to read when I was three. Six and a half years older than I, my sister, a natural teacher, demanding but fair, and already reading chapter books! I believe I aspired to be a writer from the moment I unlocked the code, under her tutelage, and read that first word. But first I had some growing up to do. And later obstacles presented themselves along the way, obstacles to my writing dream: Things to do, people to see, classes to take, life to live, responsibilities. But perhaps more than anything else what kept me from my desk was fear and self-doubt.
The more I learn about writing and writers the more clearly I see that self-doubt is part of the bargain, even for the most accomplished and celebrated. But if it calls to us, we have to do it anyway. If it calls to us, it is a necessity. As a younger person I felt a great desire to write but feared I didn’t have enough to write about. Feared that no one would care to read what I wrote. Asked myself: Who do you think you are? To indulge in such self-centeredness?
Writing as Generosity
Here’s what I’ve learned: Writing, when it’s working, is anything but self-centered. It has more to do with getting out of our own way and forgetting ourselves and letting the magic happen. As a more mature person I realized I had a lot to say—that I always had—but I still couldn’t find the time or will to sit down and do it in a serious and sustained way. It’s taken me the better part of a lifetime to figure out that we all have much to write about, no matter how young or old we happen to be; that we all “deserve” to tell our stories; that there actually is time, even in the busiest of lives, to make writing happen. Aristotle proposed that the purpose of writing is “To teach and to delight.” Sometimes we write to persuade, or to profess undying love. Sometimes we write from sorrow or confusion. Sometimes we write to discover what we’re thinking and feeling. Sometimes to be heard, seen and known.
The Need for Perseverance
Gabriel Garcia Marquez puts into the mouth of his character in Love in the Time of Cholera : “He repeated until his dying day that there was no one with more common sense, no stonecutter more obstinate, no manager more lucid or dangerous, than a poet.” What makes the poet obstinate? I suppose it’s her unwillingness to be silent; her boldness to dare to express what cannot be expressed; the act of bothering to write poetry even when it feels as though the world is falling apart all around us.
What’s Enough and What’s Too Much
In poetry we navigate between two poles: Compression and self-expression. The danger in compression is not saying enough. The danger in self-expression is overwhelming the poem and the reader. But T. S. Eliot wrote: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” We write to define boundaries, to define ourselves.
Where It All Starts
Robert Frost wrote that “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is never a thought to begin with.” While that has certainly been my experience, I happen to think that it actually is possible to write a poem or any other form of writing from a thought or a plan, but I don’t know that the work sets us on fire, reader or writer, until there is some sort of personal energy invested in it, even if that energy is nothing other than the sheer joy of playing with the language.
The Need to Write
“Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.”
I don’t know that writing has to be a matter of life or death. But I know that in my experience, once the writing practice is established, it feels necessary to continue. Something’s not right with my world, and I’m not quite right, if I go too long without it; and my life is richer because of it.
Writing to Live
Mary Oliver wrote, “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: To love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones, knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” Is it possible that writing is one of the ways that we love the world and the people in it? One of the things that also prepares us to let go?
Living to Write
The next to last words go to Shakespeare: “This thou perceivs’t which makes thy love more strong. To love that well which thou must leave ere long.” I do believe that for some of us the urge to write is related to our very mortality. We are bothering to speak up and say “I was here;” to say “This is what I saw, thought, felt and loved while I lived upon the earth; to say “I tell you this because I love you.”
So why write now?
Because why not? Because you’re here. Right here, right now.