Someone asked me this the other day. I had never been asked this, and thought it was a peculiar question. Why do I write?
I spend most of my time these days thinking about what I write. I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars to be educated in how I write. I’ve spent most of my adult life conjuring up who I write for, and have spent many brain cells and a good deal of money, defining and developing where and when I write.
But no one had ever asked me that question–Why do I write? I just stared at them dumbfounded. I stumbled around and gave them some kind of incoherent answer that probably made them wonder how I could possibly write anything worth reading, when I clearly couldn’t find a cohesive idea with two hands a flashlight. So, now, sitting in the quiet of my office, illuminated by the light of an LCD screen, I think I am able to make sense of why I do what I do. (I think).
I always knew I was going to be a writer. My early childhood memories included an aunt, (who at four years older, functioned more as a cousin) who was obsessed with reading. When I was six, she was ten and I thought she hung the moon. So, I too, began devouring The Baby Sitter’s Club, Nancy Drew, and Sweet Valley High like desert water, so that we could discuss them during our shrimp flavored Ramen noodle fests. (She also taught me to paint each fingernail a different color, wear mismatching shoelaces, and introduced me to Amy Grant and Charlie Peacock. The latter, along with Steve Taylor, would infuse my teenage angst thinker/poet period).
As soon as I was old enough to write words and sentences, I began writing stories. I was already an imaginative child. But being completely surrounded by the works of all these professional writers, I found it so easy to pick up their words, phrases, rhythms, and general ways of putting things (which I would later learn was called “style”). I could mimic them to describe the plots and characters I was already dreaming up. It all felt very natural. When the adults in my world were amazed at what I was doing, I loved the way it made me feel. It made me feel as if I were special. Unique. The other kids looked at me like I had just learned how to drive. I was a celebrity.
Being of modest income in the early 1990’s, the only computer we had was a DOS machine with a blinking orange cursor against a black screen. It only did word processing, but that was all I needed. I taught myself to type, and found it a much more efficient way to compose my stories.
No more erasing. No more rewriting an entire sheet of notebook paper because I wanted to change one line or because the handwriting was too messy. I never looked back.
I wrote my first novel on that machine. It was about an abused girl who ran away from home. She stole money for a plane ticket and flew across the country and nearly died in a Michigan snowstorm. I looked up airline numbers in the phone book and called them to find out how much the plane ticket would cost. (My eight year-old self recalls that the reservation agent wasn’t too helpful. My adult self wonders why she didn’t hang up). I remember the thrill of printing out the first draft on our dot matrix printer. It had to have been at least eighty pages….
In those early days, I had such a strong sense of knowing. I knew that this what I was going to do for my life. It was as clear as the blue sky. It wasn’t even a task of becoming. I was a writer. It was already done. All I had to do was grow up and my future was there, just waiting for me.
At the library, I read grown-up instruction books on writing and tried to understand them. At twelve, I applied to a writing correspondence school. They also offered a high school diploma course, so I figured I would do both. I received a very nice personalized letter stating that while my writing was good, at my age I didn’t have the full range of life experience necessary to complete the assignments. They wished me good luck in my writing endeavors, and even made kind comments on my admission piece. It took me a long time to understand what they meant. I wanted to whine back, “But pleeeease?! Junior high sucks!”
Having already picked my life profession, the rest of my life was about training for it. I subscribed to magazines I thought I wanted to write for. I read each issue cover to cover. I read the contributor blurbs to keep track of what kind of writers they used, and how much experience I would need. I read more books. I took a job at a bookstore. I discovered Steve Taylor and analyzed his lyrics to learn the arts of satire and editorial social comment. I devoured my English classes. I worked on the school newspaper. And the school’s literary magazine. I wrote poetry and read it in school talent shows. And people loved me for it.
I may have been socially awkward, but I was deep. In my ninth grade Algebra class, a girl I had never met told me she loved my poetry, and that I had inspired her. She handed me a small spiral of her handwritten poetry and asked me to read it. We were peas in a pod until graduation.
It was in my senior year, though, that I had my defining moment. I was sitting in the school newspaper office writing some sort of editor’s column. Whatever the topic was, it was dear to my heart. As I pounded out the words and phrases, I had this profound, overwhelming sense. I was doing exactly what I was created to do.
I remember having this analogy about a spoon. A spoon can be used for many things. It can be used to fish things out of a hard to reach place. It can be used to scrape dirt off a surface. It can be turned handle up and used to spread condiments….And it will do all of these things to varying degrees. But only when the spoon is used for its created purpose, will it work best. Sitting that day at that computer, I was that perfectly fulfilled spoon. My heart felt as if it would burst. I could never be anything else. I would never be fulfilled.
In college I vacillated on being either an English or a creative writing major. But my work on the high school paper and some very practical thoughts on job security ended with me declaring journalism. From time to time I still wonder about that. What if….?
After graduation, I tried to be a secretary. It was the worst three years of my life. If I didn’t quit my jobs, I sabotaged them by being toxically unhappy. The only time I was happy was the one summer I worked at a boat dealership.
It was right in the middle of the great crash of 2008. John McCain suspended his presidential campaign to go save the economy, and GM executives flew into Washington in private jets to ask for a bailout. The world was ending, and everyone was scared. No one was buying new boats. The salesman ambled around the dealership clasping their hands together and asking each other if they’d like to buy boats. There was nothing to do.
So, I discovered Jane Austen and began my passionate love affair with Oscar Wilde. I also wrote a novella about an art student who marries a guy to give him a green card. People asked me what I was doing and I told them. Someone asked to read it. They loved it and passed it around the office. I was a celebrity again. Then they eliminated my position. (Couldn’t imagine why).
So, now back to the question of why I write. I could spend ten pages rambling about the joy of writing. About how it is only behind a keyboard that I feel completely alive. About how it allows me, a petite youngish woman in some no name town in Texas, to contribute to the cultural conversation. About the thrill of knowing that maybe, just maybe, among the din of a hundred thousand voices, someone will hear me and I can make a difference. About how each day it gives me a new chance to add something to the landscape of art and culture. I could say all of these things, and I would not be exaggerating.
But, I think my answer is most echoed in the sentiments of Anne Lammott. She wrote that her answer to this question is, “Because I’m good at it, and because apart from writing, I am completely unemployable.” I love you Ms. Lammott. You are my hero.