In May we ran a series on the subject of writing, where four authors answered the question “Why do you write (what you write)?” Bearings Online reader Renée Bondy wrote the following essay in response to that series.
Internationally renowned author Margaret Atwood admits that when asked, “Why do you write?” she can be a bit peevish in her reply. “People never ask dentists why they fool around inside other people’s mouths,” she sometimes answers.
As defensive as it is amusing, Atwood’s response strikes a chord with me, as I suspect it might with other writers. Why do you write? is a tough question and, for many, a rather intimate one.
With that in mind, I read the recent faith and writing series in Bearings Online, “Why I Write (What I Write)” with rapt interest and profound admiration for the contributing essayists, Michael N. McGregor, Katherine Willis Pershey, Sari Fordham, and Rachel Srubas. Each offered an honest and insightful answer to the question, Why do you write (what you write)? Each contributor’s depth of self-knowledge and capacity to see the complex relationship between faith and writing is inspiring, and moved me to ponder the same question.
I found one thread running through the four contributors’ essays especially engaging: that is, the notion that writing is bound up with the power to engage with and in the work of creation. Each writer, in his or her own way, explored the capacity of the writer to illuminate, reveal, nurture, and render beautiful that which might otherwise be neglected or overlooked.
Willis Pershey describes her writing’s chosen themes (or those themes that choose her), as “modest matters of personal spirituality and domesticity.” This is a welcome reminder of the necessity of humility, even in the most accomplished writer, and the value of seeking the sacred in the seemingly mundane. Similarly, Fordham’s description of her mother’s influence and of the essential place of reading in the life of a writer, shines light on formative, yet sometimes forgotten, aspects of the creative process. McGregor’s view that writing allows him to “see the natural and spiritual world more clearly, wholly and truly” situates the writer, not as a disengaged chronicler of the workaday world, but as an active participant in the realm of the spiritual. Srubas makes direct connections between the act of writing poetry (noting its origins in the Greek poïesis, “to make”) and the act of creation, in her words, “a holy, spirited business.”
Taken together, these writers elevate poetry and prose to a higher plane, one on which writing is not simply a creative act in and of itself, but where it is integral to the process of creation. The dynamic relationship between creativity and creation, between the power of word and creator, defines and moves the writer.
Yet, as much as I admire this way of thinking about creativity—and occasionally experience writing in this way—for me, writing is more often like trying to dislodge a pebble from my shoe. I write in an effort to draw my own attention and the attention of others to uncomfortable things, to matters in urgent need of socially just responses. An issue can preoccupy me, like a pebble in my shoe, until I stop to find the source. I can limp along for days, weeks, months—sometimes becoming almost numbed to its painful reminder. But, eventually, I have to do something.
Putting fingers to keyboard is like shaking the pebble from my shoe. Often this means the pebble spills onto the path, drawing my eyes to the hundreds of similar pebbles, all potential irritants, all in want of attention. Writing requires that I focus, not only on the source of my discomfort, and the hole in my espadrille, but also on maintaining balance as I continue to walk the rocky path. I could spend endless hours meticulously sweeping the path, but it would be impossible to eliminate each tiny pebble.
And so I dislodge stubborn pebbles from my shoe, and I write—about systemic gender inequity, the misuse of language, the abuse of women’s bodies, and individual and collective struggles for equality. Like McGregor, I do not purport to “save the world” through writing; but I do see writing as a form of activism, as a way to inspire fruitful discussion and action.
In my ongoing quest to write with purpose, I am inspired by the words of Joan Chittister, “We must become aware of the sacred in every element of the life. We must bring beauty to birth in a poor and plastic world. We must restore the human community. We must grow in concert with the God who is within. We must be healers in a harsh society.”