“Because this business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be?”
― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Why am I a writer?
If I could spend most of my days writing, in chosen isolation, I probably would. But why? (And why can’t I? That is a different topic for another time).
Today I am going to explore a few of the many of the reasons why I write.
I write to begin.
To prepare the garden bed, I must weed. I must pull and dig, clear away death and debris, find who made a home among the thistles, and encourage them to leave. I must turn over the earth and find the deep-rooted and stubborn weeds, as even in their home’s destruction, they will still find a way to hoard the nutrients.
In this preparation, I find the tree frog and the praying mantis. I find what grasses will cut my fingers in my unwillingness to wear garden gloves. I am surprised by the snake and the orb-weaver and the wonderment of their gorgeous markings. I am forced to look at what went untended, in order to clear for the new.
Writing is like this. Even when not putting pen to page or fingers to keys, writing is like this.
I write to witness, document, and honor being alive.
Writing is a magical, sensory experience. Through writing I organize and remember, manifest, and connect. I can hear harmony in the humming of the street lights. I am aware of the shift in the seasons, a winter hint in summer or an autumn glimpse in spring. I see more in people’s eyes. I can tell when someone hasn’t had the turn to speak, or when a voice has not been heard. I have become an empath, for better or worse. I have turned around a corner to smell the ghost of my grandfather, gone some 30 years.
I write to access my emotions.
I fear my own rage and my deepest trauma of sorrow. To surface these parts of me, at times I fear, would rattle the house and crack the earth wide open. My expression of my emotions do not actually have that much power, but they are pushed away regardless. But in writing, I can feel them safely. A character, a poetic phrase, a memory twisted into metaphor can bring tears and trembling. I can access the childhood sadness and the immense joy of simply being alive. To write is to live. To live is write. Writing is the breath and heartbeat of my wildest and most basic needs.
I write to read.
I often remind my students to read like a writer and write like a reader. This doesn’t always make sense to them. I think about the human experience: real, known, unconscious, and nebulous. When I am writing and thus reading, I look for the many ways people experience life. In the communication of our shared journey, we are not alone.
I write to read how you, the writer, might have lived through loss, shame, victory, darkness, evil, and redemption. I read to write about how I have lived through decisions, parenthood, eating disorders, anxiety, deep love, consistency, mental illness, loss, debt, sorrow, confusion, and awakening. I write and read to honor writers and all of the common and strange ways we are human.
You go to the kitchen anxious. This is no way to greet your husband and the coffee he just made. But there it is. It’s almost sunrise. You cannot place your worry, and so it lingers in a physical need. You wrap your arms around his body sideways. He turns to you and wraps you into his chest. Fridge door light on you both, his hand releases the half and half.
He knows you. He knows your answer will be that you don’t know what’s wrong. Nothing is wrong. Everything is wrong. He’s on to you. He knows that you have been awake for a while. He knows that unconsciously you made a decision you might regret. Or not. It doesn’t need to be decided now. He isn’t psychic. You have patterns. He caught you still dreaming.
You both do the counting on your fingers and the deep breath you exhale. This exercise comes from the book you brought home to read with your son. You are worried that your son worries too much so this is a book about kids with anxiety. You know you brought this book home for yourself, too. You try the gratitude.
I’m grateful for you and for peanut butter and jelly.
He was in the middle of packing your child’s lunchbox. You sound silly to yourself, always the harshest judge. So you add intellectual silliness.
It’s just an amazing combination of flavors.
Your worries were there a minute ago. What was wrong? Hadn’t you been spinning since 4:30 or so? Is that the time the SSRI begins waning? Maybe you should up the meds. Maybe you should blame Mars for being so intense in your chart. Maybe blame the constant government chatter, the nothing that is being done, the injustice, your social media show and tell, is it enough? is it too much? The bills to pay late.
How exotic to be a part of your family Your grandmother adorned in Shanghai Jade Dreamy-eyed when your grandfather Arrives home from the airport Still very much alive And celebrated widely Kisses her, exhausted from healing, Legacy beginning, Doesn’t stop to sleep yet And sits in his study Clinking bourbon soaked ice Between his cheek and his teeth
You and your sister Not yet breathed life On this earth Will inherit these gestures His folded-arm stance Her slight secret humor Their society’s gaze The mountain view From your own safari jet
And how as children You will play And read and dream And not know That I look at your class picture Now with the others Teenagers become Perhaps moving on From their loss of you
Author’s note: This is a poem I wrote in 2006. That year, a previous student of mine was killed with his entire family when their private chartered plane went down over Kenya.
You just graduated college. It is hard to find a job with just an undergraduate degree these days. You love school. You spent six years and a summer school session at four different colleges figuring it all out. Maybe you changed your major senior year. Maybe you have debt, but you wouldn’t trade it for the experience you had. And now what? Are you feeling the call of grad school? Is now the time?
I don’t know what it is about college stairwells — the worn wooden handrails, pull-tab information flyers taped on the walls for writing groups, nanny positions, computer help, flu shot clinics, self-help groups. It could be my quickened heartbeat, racing up to the third floor, or the echoing ghosts of past academic conversations that awaken my curiosity and potential.
I felt a pressure to go get my master’s. Most of the pressure was coming from within me. I wantedthat MFA in creative writing. I wanted to spend my days on campus. I wanted to keep living that academic life, but I needed to get a job.
I know that today’s generation is holding out longer than mine to settle down. As a kid of Gen X, I felt the pressure to get married, have a career, pop out some babies, and be financially secure by age 25.
25? Didn’t my brain just finish developing somewhere around then?
I lived my life first.
I was the last of my group of friends to get married and have a baby. Unfortunately, many of those friends in our twenties who had amazing weddings in Asheville, Sarasota, Vail Ski Resort, Long Island, Costa Rica… they are divorced now.
I started my teaching career right after I graduated. I love being an English teacher. Being a teacher, although at the beginning barely paid the bills, gave me time to write and create art, learn to play guitar, travel and meet people, see the world, work extra jobs, make a ton of mistakes, learn from my life, and grow up. Some day, maybe, I would go back to school.
“You don’t have to get the MFA. Fine if you want to, but you don’t need it to be a writer.” -Jaki Shelton Green, North Carolina Poet Laureate
After teaching for 18 years, with a supportive husband of 6 years and a child in kindergarten, I finally decided to get a Master’s in Education.
And it was the best decision at the right time.
I finally totally knew what I wanted. Being a teacher is what the universe called me to do, but I wanted to deeply understand my chosen career. I couldn’t have studied and researched and written about education and learning without the depth of my experience first.
It wasn’t just the teaching experience that helped me in grad school. Life experience showed me things like resilience, commitment to personal growth, commitment to success, willingness to grow and stretch in my teaching practice.
Because I waited, I had confidence to speak in class, give presentations, research, and write long about my learning. I knew what I was doing, and I knew what I did not yet know. I was very open to ideas, and I felt life was showing me yes, I chose the right path.
The biggest lesson- it is never too late to do [fill in the blank].
Who says 45 is too late to write (finish) my first novel?
I will echo what my poetry mentor, Jaki Shelton Green reassured me:
If you are ready for grad school, or if it is the next step in your career aspirations, go for it. The time is now. If not, don’t worry, schools will be lined up to take your money when you are ready.
Courage looks deep into that canyon and says--I see you and I am coming down to feel the pain and what blossoms in such rich soil and surprises of shadow. I am coming down to find a scorpion in my boot and bluebells popping up through summer snow. I am coming in with a backpack full of things to shed while I am here. I am coming down there to look up and see how far I've come. I will look for the place where I lost my way and my senses could only be soothed by the stars. I will sleep in your cradle if it means I can actually sleep uninterrupted by your oasis. I will risk sunburn and dehydration to pick the scabs of my truth and I will climb deeper in to see the valley is home.