Why write? Joan Didion believed we should write to discover what we’re thinking, what we’re looking at and what it means, what we want and what we fear. Brenda Ueland thought we should put pen to page “because the best way to know the Truth or Beauty is to try to express it and what is the purpose of existence Here or Yonder but to discover truth and beauty and express it; i.e. share it with others?” Susan Sontag asserted we should write to create the self while Anais Nin thought we should write to discover our own voice and overcome the picky perfectionism of our inner censor.
When we write, especially in a diary, we realize we’re the authors of our own lives: we can take control of our narratives, we can rewrite our storylines. Writing is a compass and a map that illuminates where we want to go. Writing is a candle in a dark night and a life raft during a turbulent storm of the soul. Writing is a source of companionship and connection, even if the only person we’re talking to is ourselves.
In her love letter to personal writing Write for Your Life, Anna Quindlen urges us to write because writing can help us figure out who we are. The act of formulating our thoughts on a page, arranging our incoherent ideas into semantic structures of comprehensible meaning somehow makes the chaos of life more orderly. When we order words on a page, we order ourselves. Writing brings us clarity about who we are and what we want.
Take Anne Frank’s famous diary. At the time of writing, Frank was living through one of the most horrifying conflicts in human history, hiding in a small attic from the Nazis. Her diary, whom she affectionately called Kitty, was her closest confidante. In her war-wrecked world, musing over things in her diary was a rare source of comfort. As Quindlen writes,
“What sometimes gets lost, in the many decades since her father first published Anne Frank’s diary, in the millions of copies it has sold in dozens of languages, is that when she first began, Anne Frank wasn’t writing a book. She was talking to herself. And she was talking to herself in a way that any of us can do too. She was finding solace in writing her life, her thoughts and feelings, day after day. Words to live by.
Anne Frank was living through an extraordinary experience, an extraordinary time, an extraordinary horror, and to ground herself she was committing everything to paper, much of it not particularly profound. The curtains at the windows, the cupboard to hide the door. She writes about how everyone thinks she is badly behaved, about how much she hates algebra and geometry. Eventually she ran out of space in the birthday diary and continued in exercise books and accounting ledgers from the office below. In some ways she sounds like a typical teenager: a mother who doesn’t understand her, a boy she wants to be alone with. In others, surely not: the toilet that cannot be flushed for the entire day, the enforced silence to forestall the unexpected footsteps on the stairs, the sound of those footsteps evoking terror because of what the family Frank has heard is happening in the world outside the attic.
But Anne’s diary is also instructive about how writing, for anyone, for everyone, for you and for me, can normalize the abnormal and feed the spirit, whether during exceptional moments of history or just ordinary moments of everyday life…For young people like Anne, it’s a way of understanding yourself, hearing your own voice, puzzling out your identity.”
One of the greatest joys of keeping a diary is sifting through it many years later. The tattered pages transport us to an entirely different epoch, an entirely different era: when we left home for college, when we thought metal heads with Jesus hair were cute. A diary is both a time capsule and a scrapbook. Rereading our diary, we become historians attempting to understand another time, another civilization, another culture. Or, as Joan Didion once said, writing is a way to keep us on nodding terms with the people we once were.
With characteristic eloquence, Quindlen writes,
“For those far along in the span of their lifetimes, writing offers an opportunity to look back, a message in a bottle that says, This was life. This was how it was, this was who I was.”
In this way, writing is a means to escape our mortal coil and live forever. When we write, we’re usually writing for ourselves: to vent, to process events, to record. But our writing can also console our loved ones when we inevitably pass on. In Write for Your Life, Quindlen describes the experiences of the National Writing Project’s executive director Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, whose mother spent her later years writing poems. After her mother’s death, nothing comforted Elyse more than reading her mother’s words. Though her mother had departed this physical realm, her spirit persisted in her poems. Her verse could speak across the vast reaches of time and space, in this life and the hereafter. “Writing,” Quindlen notes, “is the gift of your presence forever.”
Meditating on the relationship between writing and memory, Quindlen uses an illustrative metaphor:
“When you write, you connect with yourself, past, present and future. I remember myself, the little girl who wrote poems, the college applicant who said without guile or humility that her goal in life was to be a writer. Writing can make memory concrete, and memory is such a hard thing to hold on to, like a Jell-O mold, all wiggly but with solid bits embedded clearly.”
In many ways, writing is a work of magic: it exteriorizes the interior, renders the invisible thought a visible word. Floating and half-conscious, thoughts whirl by once and disappear; words are forever. By capturing our fluttering thoughts and committing them to paper, we better remember. As Quindlen so beautifully observes,
“The point is writing is a net, catching memory and pinning it to a board like people sometimes do with butterflies like the ones we hatched. Writing is a hedge against forgetting, forgetting forever.”