“Why write?” I’m tormented by this question nearly every day. Why bring yourself to your desk, day after day, and try to tame the monsters of your thoughts and pin them to the page? Why suffer the seemingly unbearable periods of self-hatred and self-doubt if no one cares what we have to say?
In our results-oriented culture, we demand things “pay off.” Writing a novel is only worthwhile if it becomes a bestseller. Making a movie is only valuable if it makes us millions of dollars. Composing a poem is only useful if it gets us somewhere.
The point of creating— we think— is to be seen and heard. We perform for an audience. We tap dance for applause. We write so someone can read our words.
In many ways, we’re motivated by extrinsic rewards. We write for awards and acclaim, for fame and fortune, for the coveted status of literary icon. No matter how seemingly superficial, many of us secretly dream of rave reviews in the New York Times, our authorial black-and-white photograph on the back of a book cover.
What do we desire more than anything?
To be respected and esteemed.
If we turn 30 and still have never been published, we may be tempted to give up on our dreams. We may stay awake late at night chastising ourselves for not choosing a more conventional career. “Maybe,” we wonder during these midnight terrors, “we should’ve just made our parents proud and become doctors.”
At this moment when we’re most discouraged, we must remember why we write in the first place. In her clarion call to write, Write for Your Life, populist of the page Anna Quindlen suggests there are far more pressing reasons to put pen to page. We should write— not for stardom or celebrity— but because the act of writing gives life form and shape. So much of life is fleeting, transitory. Unless made solid, our experiences are like grains of sand spilling through a sieve. Many years from now when we reflect upon our lives, our most cherished memories will be hazy and indistinct. Writing is a net, a way to catch memory before it flutters away.
Writing is a means to immortality. Life is brief, as momentary as the flap of a butterfly’s wing. Words on a page, however, are long-lasting. If we have a passing thought, it darts across our consciousness only to forever fade. But if we record our thoughts— our musings and meditations, our judgements and observations, our daydreams and reveries— they will endure long after we have passed away.
Recounting a rather mundane moment when she helped a blind woman cross the street, Quindlen writes,
“…and for a few minutes it was nothing but an interior anecdote, passing eventually, as these things do, into memory.
But written down, it lives. It’s there, it’s real. That’s the important thing. That’s why we write things down, to give them life. Sometimes people ask whether a particularly difficult or challenging situation is made cathartic through writing. I’m not sure writing about things always makes us feel better, but perhaps it sometimes does make loss, tragedies, disappointments more actual. It can turn them into somethings with a clear shape and form, and therefore make it possible to see them more deeply and clearly, and more usefully turn confusion and pain into understanding and perhaps reconciliation. On paper our greatest challenges become A Real Thing, in a world in which so much seems ephemeral and transitory.”
What’s wonderful about books is they connect us with the finest minds from many years ago. With the turn of a page, a lonesome 21st century reader can find a friend in Tolstoy or Kafka, Hemingway or Fitzgerald.
In the same way, what we write can speak across continents and centuries to future generations of people. Though it might seem horribly self-indulgent to write about our own experiences (after all, who cares if our mother died or we just broke up with our boyfriend of 10 years?), we are never just writing for ourselves: what we write inevitably helps others. Art is an act of service, not an expression of ego. Writing is a form of connection, a bridge that stretches across the vast distances of time and space and brings together seemingly dissimilar people. Too often in life, we feel solitary in our struggles. When we write truthfully about our experiences, we remind our readers that they are not alone.
Take Anne Frank. When she wrote in her diary, she probably felt like another teenage girl: obsessing about boys, complaining about her problematic relationship with her mother. There were probably many mornings when she wondered “why write at all?” Little did she know that her diary would come to represent the horrors of the Holocaust and resonate with millions around the globe. Lesson? We have no idea how our words will impact the world. As Quindlen notes,
“That is a kind of afterlife all our own stories, inconsequential and important as well, can assume when we record them. To write the present is to believe in the future. One of the poignant things about Anne Frank’s diary is that the very composition suggests that someday she will live to tell it all, and in some sense I suppose she does, on the page, in the attic, surviving day by day, never dreaming that by doing so she will help some of us survive, too. She’s not really writing the story of the Holocaust, although that’s what she illuminates. She’s telling the story of one small and unremarkable life that has come to stand for millions of others, and so became remarkable.”