Today we kick off this year’s series on the subject of writing, “Why do you write (what you write)?” (Find last year’s series on faith and writing here). We often talk about how to write or even what to write about, but rarely why we write in the first place. This year we delve into writers’ sense of inspiration and motivation. Check back in each Thursday in May for a series of diverse and interesting responses to this question.
I suppose it says something that I’ve been writing for over 40 years (50 if you count my first stories, crafted in the second grade) and I’ve never asked myself why I write. Not even after reading and even assigning George Orwell’s popular essay on the same subject. Orwell settled on four reasons: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse (the desire to see things as they really are and record them for posterity), and political purpose (the desire to move the world in a particular direction). All of these have motivated me at one time or another, but they are not the core reasons I write or why I choose to write what I do.
Like Orwell, I started writing early and then tried to give it up. He doesn’t say why he did this, only that he did it “with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature.” I did it because I was zealous and impetuous and my writing for an international relief and development agency had exposed me to extreme need. Writing—especially creative writing, as opposed to journalism or the kind of advocacy writing Orwell did later in his short life—seemed self-indulgent, a use of time and energy that didn’t serve the world’s needs. I applied to nursing school as the fast track to working in a refugee camp and prayed that God would take my desire to write away. The result was an almost frightening upsurge of passion for writing, a feeling deep inside me that forsaking writing would be an outrage not only to my true nature but also to God.
I don’t mean by this that I see, or ever saw, myself as a divinely appointed scribe, my writing meant to save the world. On the contrary, although I’ve been writing all these years, my first book is just coming out. (When he died, Orwell was eleven years younger than I am now and had already published nine books, including two that didn’t save the world but maybe woke it up.) What I mean is that saving the world is not the point of my life or anyone else’s. (That’s been done.) The point, the purpose, the reason we are here, is to live as fully as possible the life we feel called to live. To give glory to God, as St. Irenaeus put it, by being fully alive.
In the months following my vain attempt to abandon writing, I came to believe that the Psalmist’s line God gives us the desires of our heart means that God gives us the actual desires rather than the objects of them, as I’d thought before. Writing, then, for me, is God-given, God-driven, God-inspired. The inspiration comes like sun in spring, causing me to generate leaves and blooms that rise from my deepest roots. The beauty is that my desire is both personal and spiritual. What I long to do is what I’m meant to do as well. My delight is also God’s.
Older writers often say to younger ones, if you can live without writing, do something else. I’ve said it myself. Being a writer isn’t easy, especially if you’re poor or don’t succeed at first. Even if you find a job that pays enough to keep you writing, there’s seldom enough time to write all you want to write or think you should. And the world is fickle, bestowing attention and income on the undeserving as often as the deserving, the unjust as well as the just. What I’ve come to believe is that the only way to survive as a writer, to keep your sanity and your soul, is to view writing not as a career or a means to an end or even a gift, but as a necessity and a lifestyle. A way of living in the world and seeing it for what it is.
If I’d been asked when younger why I write, I might have said something embarrassingly lofty, something suggesting I might rise to prominence or influence world events. My reason now, after all these years, is that writing is as simple and vital as opening my eyes. As putting on glasses to improve my sight. Like glasses, writing allows me to see the natural and the spiritual world more clearly, wholly, and truly. It gives me vision and refreshes it. Proverbs says that without a vision the people perish. This is true for individuals as well.
Which brings me to why I write the things I do. I wrote the book coming out this fall, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, because Lax spent his life trying to purify his vision as a writer and a spiritual being and I knew I could learn from that. I wrote about theater for years and still write fiction because theater and fiction incarnate imagination, making intangibles real. I’m writing a book on writing about people because no one has written the book I desire to read on how we view, evaluate and interpret others’ lives. And I’m writing a memoir centered on my mother’s death because seeing the relationships in play when she died—between mother and son, before and after, death and life—seems tantamount to seeing truth itself: what is necessary, what is not, and who, at our rawest and most vulnerable, we are.
I write because I desire to and because I believe that God and the universe desire that too. I write because writing fulfills me in ways nothing else can. And I write because I’ve been writing so long I’m no longer able to understand, or even imagine, without my eyes open, these glasses on.