The question came up in my writers’ group today: “Why do you write?”
I’ve never given much thought to the why of it. Writing comes as naturally to me as breathing or blinking.
When I was five, I wrote my first story in pencil on loose-leaf notebook paper that my mother then put in a three-ring binder. Presto—a hardback book. I asked for a spiral-bound notebook and meticulously copied the story into it. Presto—a paperback book. I remember asking my mother, “Is this how they do it?” because if copying books letter by letter into various hardback and paperback forms was how one created an inventory, I was not destined to be a writer. She explained that books were made on printing presses. I decided then that writing was for me, and I’ve never stopped working at it.
The minister who was missing a sock at my nephew’s memorial service . . . the thin, watery sweat on the coat of a beloved horse who had colicked and had to be put down . . . the inch-thick makeup worn by an old classmate . . . an unpleasant phrase I overheard that made me think, That sounds like something one of my characters would say (not a particularly likeable character, mind you) . . . the details of life happening to and around me all find a home in my writing. Usually, the most pivotal events in my manuscripts never happened to me—but the emotions did. That’s how I know that what my characters feel is true.
That doesn’t really explain why I write. People observe and feel things all the time without needing to write about them. Maybe the question isn’t “Why do you write,” but “Why do you need to write?”
Years ago, I ran an art workshop school, and twice I was the driver for a week-long photography workshop. The instructor, six students, and I traveled all over the Four Corners area. I enjoy photography and have an eye for light and composition, so the first year, I made as many photos as the students did. On reflection, it occurred to me that capturing the image had taken precedence over experiencing the place. That was fine for the students—it was a photography class, after all—but the second year, I decided not to take a camera.
Instead, I took a journal, and while the instructor and students made photos, I wrote. Other people may find that the camera is a way into an experience, but I hide behind the lens. A camera sets me a little apart, allowing me not to engage fully with people, places, or even myself. I still enjoy photography—but words are my way in. I need to write because it’s how I figure things out, how I make sense of events and experiences.
Words are how I think, how I see, how I understand. For others, a picture may be worth a thousand words—but give me those thousand words. I need every one of them.