In the past, I wrote to solve social ills. I wrote to educate the world. I wrote to pay the rent. Through it all, I wrote without a clue as to why, really, I bothered
putting pen to paper at all.
My relationship with writing was like a bad romance: I did all the taking, and blamed writing for failing to fulfill me. Time and time again, I abandoned writing for more interesting passions. Travel became a regular lover. Writing would always be there when I returned, standing in baggage claim with that irksome grin that meant: “You know we’re meant to be together.”
I think I’ve gotten it all backwards. Writers should cut their teeth on their own messy lives first, gnawing at their fears and fantasies until they can spit out something useful. Truths eventually emerge, giving the writer all the ingredients she needs for some serious cooking. I hated cooking, by the way, until I wanted to feed others.
Truth is, I can’t even say what my work will be a year from now. And I don’t care. I care about mending that bad romance. I care about going back to the beginning, cooking up some tasty food and inviting my destiny to dinner. What matters to me most is figuring out why, really, I bother putting pen to paper at all.
All I know is this: I write because I don’t understand.
I don’t understand, not fully, how family shapes a person. I can’t recall the type of liquor swirling in my dad’s glass each night, or whether my first son was asleep or awake when we finally left the NICU. I write to fill in such details. I write to make sense of love and obligation. I write to acknowledge the personal, but also to discover the universal. Joan Didion talks about noticing the snakes in life, so that they don’t come back to bite you later. I write to find the snakes.
I don’t understand injustice. When I was nine, my teacher told me about Canadian hunters who clubbed baby seals to death for their pristine white fur. Outraged, I envisioned myself standing on the deck of a Greenpeace ship, urging the world to protect these doe-eyed innocents. I grew up, and never saved a seal. I did become a newspaper reporter, and wrote about all kinds of injustice. I will always believe in the power of stories to outrage, influence, improve. I expect my writing will continue to highlight doe-eyed innocents, of one kind or another.
I don’t understand anything, really, until I write it down. I am beginning to see that the craft of writing, when taken seriously, provides a richness and clarity unavailable to me in any other form. And that, for now, is enough to bother putting pen to paper at all.