On Why I Write and Why I Don’t 

On Why I Write and Why I Don’t 

 

When I taught at Iowa, then Harvard, then City College, here is what I tried to get away with, only in effect, not actually: I asked each student to open his or her mouth as wide as possible. I reached in with a thumb and forefinger to a point directly beneath his or her epiglottis. There is the free end of a spool of tape there. I pinched it, then pulled it out gradually, gently, so as not to make the student gag. When I got several feet of it out where we could see it, the student and I read what was written there. 

– Kurt Vonnegut1

 

There are nights when the words overcome me. They pour out of the tips of my fingers into my keyboard before my mind even knows that they exist. Pour is perhaps too passive a word. It’s more like they dart. The rapid typing feels almost transactional in nature. It reminds me of being six years old and playing with my toy cash register. There was something exhilarating about pushing a button and unlocking value. There still is. Like any currency, words have to be exchanged to have value. They can be used, but cannot be controlled. Writers are traders who often have trouble with this distinction. To use words successfully, we have to reconcile our ambitions with the inconsistent and intangible nature of words themselves. Words are in this sense the most elusive of commodities. They’re the building blocks for our ideas, but their intangibility makes them elusive. The only way to use them is to keep them in motion but from my experience, they move sporadically at best.

When my writing flows, I don’t delude myself into thinking that I’ve accomplished anything of my own merit. I know that it’s mostly luck and blind devotion that got me there, if not just an obsession with words themselves. Annie Dillard once wrote that “at its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace.” This feeling is “handed to you, but only if you look for it.”2 Words only ever pay attention to me once I’ve proved myself worthy. They need to know that they have my undivided attention. Until then, they are a tease. They linger around the cavities of my mind, only to flutter away when I need them the most. They dance around my thoughts, seducing them before hanging them dry. 

Words break hearts, among other things. I often feel like words and a lack of them threaten to destroy me. To achieve the flow of good writing, Dillard believes that you need to “break your fists, your back, your brain, and then—and only then—it is handed to you.”3 I don’t know if that rings true for all writers, but to me, it makes sense. What I can’t agree with is the notion that the ultimate end to my writing is unmerited grace alone. I can’t, for my own sake, believe that I would ever be in a relationship so one-sided and abusive. Why chose to be a writer to endure laborious pain? 

My therapist once told me that she had an ex-boyfriend who practiced Jiu-Jitsu. She said that with the way Jiu-Jitsu worked in its early stages of training, he had to kick a bag with his shin until he broke it. His leg, not the bag. Ideally, the break would heal with time and he would emerge desensitized to future pain. He would become a stronger fighter by default. I’ve since looked up the mechanics of the sport and have seen no evidence proving any of this to be true. Whether this was a story fabricated to prove a point, or simply a case of misplaced masochism, the message of it rings clear. When we break, we get the opportunity to heal. 

I break when I write to fix what feels broken. It seems a paradox, but I’ve learned that most things are. Sometimes I look at my computer screen, at all of the words that I’ve written and all of those that have yet to show themselves to me, and I have the sense to think that I’m looking into a cracked mirror that I don’t quite comprehend. I keep writing in hopes of putting it together to catch a glimpse of myself in its reflection. Words are the glue that I use for mending. 

On a few occasions, I’ve managed to write seamlessly enough to see flashes of who I am. It’s in those rare instances that I cease being an abstraction. Used right, words hold the key to things that we don’t understand and reveal to us what we do. When in harmony with my thoughts, words push me to a place that feels like transcendence. In writing, I inhabit a liminal space between the tangible realm that my body exists in and the world of ungrounded concepts that is my mind. In this unity, I find myself. There lie the unfiltered truths of my experience of the world. It was Joan Didion who wrote, “had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write.”4 When I write and I do it well, I know myself and my thoughts if only for a moment. Because of this, I often don’t write. 

There is such a thing as too much intimacy with the self. It’s one of the threats posed by well-used words. Because writing often feels a masochistic act, George Orwell attributed the need to write to the existence of “some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” 5 My demon is alive and well. But sometimes I just don’t want to see him. Doing so always involves some sort of confrontation. To face my demon is to face myself, and I can’t do that without opening and prodding into the world of contradictions that reside within me. Parsing through them requires a willingness to sift through layers of myself. When I abstain from writing, it is from a fear of this process. 

About a year ago, I wrote an essay on beauty. The piece is a little under 2000 words but it took me months to write to completion. Every time that I sat down with the intention of working on it, I would feel the immediate urge to do anything else. Throughout that period of my life, I grew accustomed to picturing my body like a pinball machine. Whenever I thought about writing, I could feel my mind pulling the lever that sets off the game. My torso was the glass box where it was played. As the pinballs darted across my insides, I’d realize that I was having trouble breathing. It wasn’t until I’d finally finished the arduous writing process that I acknowledged the source of my anxiety. It was cognitive dissonance. I had embarked on this essay because I felt a strong need to untangle my relationship to beauty, a concept that has always plagued me. Counteracting that need was an unwillingness to see the uncomfortable truths about myself that would emerge in the process. 

Sometimes, I don’t want to find words because I don’t want to know what they mean. Avoidance as a defense mechanism is usually responsible for my writer’s block. The more central a topic is to my sense of self, the harder it is for me to write and the less I want to write it. Self-evasion is absurd like that. That fear of my own mind could push me to self-sabotage shows just how threatening vulnerability really is. Oscar Wilde claimed that all writers are vain and selfish. He also wrote that “for all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.6  When I realize that so much of what I write is serves me more than it ever will anyone else, I worry that he might be right. That thought alone is sometimes enough to temporarily guilt me out of the act altogether. 

There is also, of course, the less trivial form of writer’s block, one that isn’t necessarily tied to writing about the self, but that is still inevitably a reflection of a writer’s sense of identity. That would be crippling self-doubt. I try not to think about this one too much because apparently, if you write and you care about what you write and you have a decent amount of self-awareness, it never goes away. Elizabeth Gilbert and Rachel Syme have both confessed to harboring the tormenting mantra of THIS SUCKS in their minds as they write. I hear it too. But then I remember that I don’t really know how to do anything but write and that if I don’t know how to write, I don’t know how to do anything. Despite acknowledging that I truly don’t know how to do anything, I also know that nothing makes me quite as upset or afraid or uncomfortable or alive as writing does. So I have no choice but to keep going and hope for the best.

Now to the point of all of this. I like to think that writing about my own experiences serves a purpose greater than that of simply soothing my own apprehensions. Words are currency after all. I try to put them in the right order and then release them out into the world in hopes that such a transfer will give them a value to someone beyond myself. But ultimately, I wrote about why I write for myself. I was in desperate need of a reminder. 

  1. Vonnegut Jr., Kurt. “Despite Tough Guys, Life Is Not The Only School For Real Novelists”. Article, 1999. Writers on Writing. The New York Times.
  2. Dillard, Annie. “Write Till You Drop”. Article, 1989. The New York Times Archives. The New York Times.
  3. Dillard, Annie. “Write Till You Drop”. Article, 1989. The New York Times Archives. The New York Times.
  4. Didion, Joan. “Why I Write”. Article, 1976. The New York Times Archives. The New York Times.
  5. Orwell, George. Why I Write, 1946.
  6. Orwell, George. Why I Write, 1946.
 
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