There are some questions that do not lend themselves to easy answers. "Why do you love him or her?" "Why do you tolerate that?" "Why do you say these things?" "What are you doing in there?" and "Have you been drinking?" are examples of queries that make us stop and stare, our mouths hanging open. With a little planning and forethought, we can manage to get around them, though. My favorite responses to these types of questions are, "Because!" "Nothing!" and, "No!" This proves that the training of my adolescence was not a complete waste of time.
Recently, a close friend asked me why I write. Because he is also a writer, I assumed the question was rhetorical. After a few seconds of silence, I realized he was serious and expected me to cough up an answer. Quickly reaching into my memory bank and rushing through the file marked, "No-Fault Responses," I blurted out, "Because!"
He was not impressed.
Why write? If "Because!" is not a suitable answer (which it obviously isn’t), then why? Having learned the danger of answering for anyone but myself, I will attempt here to give a reasonably coherent explanation for why I put myself through the scary, frustrating, exhilarating ordeal of regularly eviscerating myself on paper for all the world to see.
This is my cue to begin with the tale of my unhappy childhood, the demons that drove me and my frenzied escape into Fantasyland. Not only is that shamefully convenient, it is untrue. Yes, my childhood was unhappy. Yes, I had demons. Yes, I escaped into Fantasyland. However, I could just as easily have become a serial killer, a prostitute, a child beater or a politician. God, in His infinite mercy, spared me and I became a writer, instead. I do not write because of my warped past. I write in spite of it. It gives me grist for the mill, but it is never anything more than grist. My passion, alone, keeps the wheel turning.
Young girls often fall in love with horses and festoon the tops of dressers and desks with the miniature likenesses of golden palominos, black stallions or spotted appaloosas. I loved words with the same dreamy, irrational passion. The surface of every piece of furniture I owned was crowded with books and notebooks filled with my own scrawled creations.
I told stories to my sisters and wrote poetry for my grandparents. My mother would ask me to read my latest adventure to her while she soaked in a hot tub at the end of a day that had been too long. I’d sit cross-legged on the bathroom floor, my notebook in my lap, and read. Every now and again, I’d glance up and see my mother, her naked shoulders resting against the back of the tub and her eyes closed. Sometimes she looked dead, and I would stop, hold my breath and wait. Then, her sleepy voice would break the silence and she’d say, "The fairies made a boat of old pine needles. Go on."
My mother was my first critic. However, as we all know, mothers make lousy critics. If I’d read Dostoevsky to her for forty minutes, she would have proclaimed it, "Wonderful!" and "Exciting!" Anyone who has ever read Dostoevsky needs no further explanation.
I write because I need to write. I write because I am at the bottom of a deep well and I am trying to tell you something. I am trying to make you hear me. I am trying to get your attention because there is this flame inside me and I am trying to tell you about it. I want you to know the fire I feel and the hunger that eats at me.
I write because I am standing at an intersection in your life and, while you hurry past, I am recording the world around both of us. I am taking note of everything and I want to hold it up to you, mirror-like, so you can see what I see.
I write because there are screaming things in my head and they will not be still unless I am a witness for them, unless I tap the microphone at the top of the world, lean forward and say, "Attention! The intensity of all you feel cuts right through me and I can feel it, too! Being human is a glorious, hideous business! You are more magnificent than you ever hoped and more horrible than you ever feared!"
I write because, if I don’t, I will explode. I will start banging my head against the floor and, when the night comes, I will do a Goya and paint monsters on my walls. I write because the words pack themselves so tightly inside my head, with all their energy, dread, joy, hope and abject misery, that, if I cannot get them out, they will consume me.
I write because I have something to say...about me, about you, about being alive.
I know you are thinking that I, like so many writers, must be just the tiniest bit insane. Well, I am grateful to God for many things, but chief among them is the fact that Annie Dillard exists. I have read of her childhood (penned by her own hand) and the remarkable fullness of joy it contained. I am thus reassured that not EVERY writer is a mental cripple, born in despair, reared in anguish and constantly fighting back the relentless tide of an impending full-blown nervous breakdown. I read Annie Dillard’s work and say to myself, "See? She is brilliant AND normal! It CAN be done!"
Thank God for Annie. If she can be sane, maybe I can, too.
I write because I am a writer. I was born that way. I was also born with brown eyes. What is one to do? You play the hand you are dealt. When I think of a painter, I see someone watching the colors and shades of the world and putting them to canvas. When I think of a musician, I see someone listening hard to the rhythm of the human heart and wrapping it in melody. When I think of a writer, I see someone on his hands and knees, leaning close to the blood of Abel and hearing its tormented cry to God, "Here is my story! Here is my truth! Someone bear witness of me!"
I write because I love to write.
Why write? Because.
© Camille Moffat 1999
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