I'm on the National Writing Project Writers Council. Not sure how that happened, but there I am. They have an ongoing challenge to Council members to take on the topic "Why I Write." Here's what came out...
Why do I write? Hmmm. Give me just a minute….
OK, I guess I’ll start with one of the few sharp memories I had as a child. I sat at our kitchen table with my younger brother and my parents while my father jotted something on a notepad. As hilariously mundane as it seems now, I was struck with a kind of amazement that his fingers held this little plastic stick, and words were pouring out out of the point onto the paper. The connection between the hand and the pen, and the act of writing itself seemed somehow magical. The fact that he may have been jotting down “Oil change, call Murray, pick up dry cleaning” wouldn’t have spoiled the moment in the least.
My father was a word aficionado. Sadly, the words he loved most were from 17th century England, which made his own writing more or less unreadable. In his view of style, why use the word “fancy” when you have “crinkum-crankum,” “soldier” when you have “man-at-arms, or “Wow!” when you have “Zounds!”
However, his devotion to language wasn't always a bad thing. On long road trips we’d often play an unnamed describing game to pass the time. Dad would suggest some random object, say “bicycle,” or “giraffe” or “pyramid,” and my assignment was to define the thing as clearly as I could to someone who didn’t know what it was. As a car game it never gained much traction outside our own Ford LTD, but I found it fun nonetheless.
My impulse to write is deeply connected to humor, which was my survival drug of choice during my adolescence. While my peeps toyed with cigarettes, alcohol or weed to salve their hormone-induced angst, I was zoning out on the collected works of Robert Benchley, James Thurber, and Jean Shepherd, the recordings of Alan Sherman, Tom Lehrer and Jonathan Winters, the cartoons of Walt Kelly, Charles Schultz, Ronald Searle, and…..well, you get the idea.
My attachment to humor was in large part due to the endorphin-inducing pleasure I took in laughing. But it was far more elemental than that. It began for me as a deeply consoling way to confront reality, which I found then, and increasingly find now, so demoralizing, threatening, chaotic, and absurd. Humor gave me release in unexpected puns, offered solace in shared catastrophe, transmuted the frailties and tragedies of human existence into something I could bear more easily.
The tools and timing of humor were cemented into the metamorphic rock of my personality long ago, and now writing offers me a way to explore them, play with them. I often have the experience of smiling, even laughing out loud at some unexpected thought when I’m tapping away at my computer alone. It’s possible this behavior is diagnosed somewhere in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but I’m perfectly OK with that.
Over time my writing has taken on distinctly unhumorous roles — book reviews, political commentary, corporate communications, eulogies, wedding toasts, feature articles for trade publications, and more recently, the gaping maw of social media. But the challenge and joy of finding the phrase that most elegantly expresses a thought or emotion is one of the great free pleasures In my life, nearly equal to watching YouTube Fail videos of people slipping on ice.
My assignment, when I choose to accept it, is to find elegance whenever I place words next to each other. I don’t mean elegance in a highfalutin sort of way. I’m talking about the exquisite and elusive spot where simplicity meets beauty. I’d like to think I have my moments of success. Here’s one I’d choose, from my current project Hugh Manatee’s Last Stand, an enviro-political dystopian satire.
“Gideon Manatee was a tall man, but he’d gone to pot over the years, and had a belly that entered a room a solid two seconds before the rest of him. His leather belt suffered in a state perpetual defeat under the overhanging flesh.”
Feel free to disagree, but I liked this paragraph when it first came to me, and it pleases me all these months later, which is exactly my point.
My enthusiasm for gluing words together well isn’t limited to some ambitious work I have underway. I take as much gratification composing an angry e-mail to my dolt of a congressman as I do composing my next masterwork (which I guess would be my first masterwork). I’ll occasionally return to my sent e-mail folder just to gloat over how pithy and exquisitely expressive one of my messages was.
However, there are far more consequential reasons why I write. I can think of half a dozen right off the bat — my six glorious grandchildren. They all live close by, a situation which is a constant source of wonderment and existential gratitude. Yet for all the joy my wife and I take at their presence in our lives, dark thunderclouds of foreboding for them haunt me in the wee hours of the night.
The imperfect but robust country of my youth is unraveling surprisingly quickly, and the imperishable planet I grew up on is literally melting away, both in real time. My writing is often now an act of defiance, of wavering but fervent hope, and love. Whatever teeny consequence my words might have in putting off the gathering pandemonium, I can at least look my grandkids in their eyes without offering an inner apology to them.
Beyond that, I suppose I write for the same reasons people make movies, dance, sing, compose, act, paint, play violin, or take photographs. It’s my way of experiencing the world deeply, making as much sense of it as best I can, adding as much imagination, humor, eloquence and passion to my understanding as I can manage, and sharing whatever comes out the other end with anyone who’s interested.
Isn’t that’s what nearly every artist aspires to do, one way or another?