WHY I WRITE ~ Arisa White

WHY I WRITE ~ Arisa White

Photo by Sven Wiederholt

I write because I’m trying to love others and myself.

It is a way of getting to.

It’s an opportunity to try on humanity, from varying points of view. If I can write from the perspective of the murdered and murderer, I can discover in myself something I did not know.

To get to a place where I am not ashamed of my secrets.

To not judge.

It’s how I keep myself sane and honest. Growing up with six other siblings, a mother who chose abusive boyfriends as partners, I needed a space to breathe, to remind myself that I had a voice that could be listened to, even if it was only by me. And despite the lies my mother told herself and us to permit and excuse such violence in our home, writing allowed me my own truth.

Writing is raising the silenced and inaudible voices to heard.

I’ve chosen poetry to help me navigate the questions I ask about people and the things people do, and the systems that we create to keep people doing the same, often, unhealthy things they do.

I can’t let things go: I like the challenge of finding the words to remake the moment again. The constant translation of events, situations, and emotions keep my brain turned-on.

I like to be turned-on.

It is truly, the times when I feel safe. Free to take risk, to emote, and to be led by imagination without fear.

Sometimes, I need a knife, a lover, a priest, a compass, and the poem offers direction, listens, loves, and stabs.

It allows me to not be while still being. When you walk in the world as black, woman, queer, poor, and the such, you get read before you reveal who you are. And sometimes, there is no space to learn who you are without being constantly challenged by assumptions, stereotypes, and expectations to perform or produce in a certain way because of those social identities. So writing is restorative, recuperative and permits me to ask myself vulnerable questions about my own who-ness and humanness.

I love it.

Why I Write ~ Mark Wunderlich

WHY I WRITE ~ Mark Wunderlich

I learned to read when I was four and soon discovered the set of books on a small shelf in my room; I would spend much time reading and re-reading these books over the next dozen years. The set had once belonged to my father and had been published in the 1930’s. There were 14 in total—My Book House—edited by Olive Beaupré Miller. Beaupré. Beaupré! This name confounded me, irritated like a pebble in my shoe. That choking gobbet of vowels! That accent like a bee’s stinger! How was I to know how to say this name? No one I knew could tell me, and so it remained a mystery, foreign and untranslatable, as far away as France. Someone was able to tell me this name was probably French, and so I came to think of France as the place books came from. At some point, I was given or I found a Canadian nickel. Here too was writing in French! I began sorting through my parents’ change purses, looking for Canadian money. The quarters and nickels were uncommonly beautiful; what kind of a genius puts a beaver or a caribou on one side, and the profile of a queen on the other? More importantly, this money, like the books, suggested a world to me that lay beyond the rural corner of Wisconsin hemmed by bluffs on either side; you could see up the river to the first bend, and down the river to the wooded slough, but no further. This money which was familiar and yet altogether different, had made its way to my small town; it was useless there, but it had arrived nonetheless. The fables, poems and stories in My Book House were equally out of place with their allusions to Greek mythology and Shakespeare, though both the books and the money were useful, somewhere, to someone.

I was recently called “emotionally retarded” by an intimate. It was meant in jest, but it was meant nonetheless. Remarks like this have a way of working themselves into one’s psyche, clinging to your soft parts like a burr so I’m happy to have the chance to exorcise it here. This person is wrong, of course; I have, in fact, a full and nuanced emotional range, and those emotions find their best form in written language, in the poems I write. I was raised in a part of the world where expressiveness and emotional largesse are not valued, where displays of temper or strong opinion are considered shocking or just unspeakably rude. Much credence is given to humility, to simplicity of language. In people raised in this culture (I’m speaking of rural areas of the upper northern Midwest) this is sometimes expressed by a cool demeanor, or excessive politeness. It can also be seen as a general pleasantness, a sunny disposition—neither too hot nor too cold. Just nice.

While an adolescent, as I came to understand that my sexual attraction was oriented toward men, I saw that the world of seeming could differ sharply from the world of being. I learned to read subtle cues in tone and mood, learned to understand what was felt, but would remain unsaid. I searched the faces, gestures and voices of people I met, looking for evidence of likeness.

When I discovered poems and began to write them, it became clear to me that poems were objects but ones with a minimal physical form; that they gave pleasure but they also irritated (Beaupré! Beaupré!). The best poems suggested more than they said, and rewarded you for re-reading them. Some poems I knew could never be plumbed, were bottomless pools. The words made patterns and sounds and those sounds, though attached to the meaning of the words, created their own more mysterious meaning. Poems revealed and concealed simultaneously, and when my first book was published, my family and I both experienced a great deal of anxiety and distress about being exposed. I felt I had accomplished some great goal, and that the accomplishment came at great cost. My mother told only a few close friends about my book, and my father refused to either read it, or discuss the matter at all. I understand and respect their reactions, though I will continue to write and publish as it brings the world of seeming and the world of being closer together, and that work makes sense to me.

Several years ago while visiting my family in Wisconsin, I came across my collection of Canadian money which I had collected as a child. All told, I had about $50 in change and a few small bills. On a whim, I bagged it and put it in my suitcase. My partner and I made a trip to Montreal later that year, and I took along my money, changed it for bills at a bank, and spent it I don’t remember how—on a meal, or on the city bus, or maybe I left it as a tip for the bartender who listened patiently as I tried out my broken French.

Why do I write? I write because of Canada with its beavers and caribou and queens as tokens of exchange. Beacause of Olive Beaupre Miller. Because I grew up on a farm. Because my parents left books in my room and often left me alone. I write because my grandparents spoke a language other than English, even though their grandparents were born in America. I write because I’m queer. I write because I yearn for order. I write because I am emotionally retarded. I write out of revenge and with the desire to punish. I write to create a vision of myself at my most articulate, my most generous, my most cruel. I write because I seem to be one thing, and am another. I write in order to praise.

Why Do I Write ~ Andrew Demcak

WHY I WRITE ~ Andrew Demcak

As Joan Didion says “In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying: listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions, with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the readers most private space.”

All of my poems are “cut-ups” of poems which originally appeared either in The New Yorker, Poetry, or in Sylvia Plath’s various books. This very act of “cutting” is a violent reclamation of language. I use a variation of the “cut-up” method pioneered in the 1920’s by both the DADA and Surrealist movements, refined in the late 1950’s by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gyson. I have further augmented it, moving the praxis farther from the creation of non-objectivist “collages” and into what I can only describe as a way of facilitating textual “mutations.” I edit the meanings of the poems as they evolve from the various permutations of word fragments. I further edit for syllabic line length and maximum syllabic line total, while playing around with various rhyme schemes, making the end product a hybrid of traditional English blank verse and French lyric and metrical/formulaic syllabics, e.g. OULIPO methods. In my “how” is my “why.”

Why I Write ~ Alan Shapiro

WHY I WRITE ~ Alan Shapiro

**Essay provided by author; however, originally published in the Cincinnati Re and reprinted in Best American Essays 2007 .**

Some years ago, I went to a child psychologist—if Henny Youngman had written this opening sentence, he would have added: “The Kid didn’t do a thing for me.” But I digress. The child psychologist I went to had recently tested one of my children for ADD. When the results came back positive, he called me and my not-yet-ex-wife to suggest that we be tested too. There may be a genetic component to ADD, he said, and taking the test would not only reveal the extent to which we ourselves suffered from this condition; it would also enable us to better understand our child.

So we took the test. Turns out it’s the only test I ever aced. As the doctor put it, in my case the results were salient.

“So, I’m ADD.” I said. “What does that mean?”

“Well,” he said, “according to the test, your ADD manifests itself in three ways: you have trouble starting tasks. You have trouble staying on task. And you have trouble finishing tasks.”

“That pretty much covers it.” I said. “But how do you explain the fact that I’ve written a number of books, and even today I spent several hours puzzling over a single sentence in a translation I’m doing of a Greek tragedy.”

He said that it’s not that people with ADD can’t concentrate on things they want to do, it’s that they lack any ability to concentrate on anything that bores them. People with ADD have no tolerance for boredom. When I pointed out that I’d been teaching for over twenty five years and seldom read a student paper that didn’t make me want to drive an ice pick through my skull just to relieve the boredom but that I nonetheless returned each and every student paper in a timely fashion (even the ones I bothered to read—just kidding!), my soon to be ex-wife interjected: “But Alan, you can’t remember the name of anyone you meet at a party.”

“Sweetheart,” I said, “That’s called a greeting disorder.”

“And,” she continued, “even if I give you a list of groceries you come home with the wrong things, red peppers instead of tomatoes, bananas instead of squash.”

“That’s called being a guy,” I said.

“And you don’t hear five per cent of what I tell you.”

“That’s called marriage.” She wasn’t amused.

Sensing the tension, the doctor asked, “So what do you think you want to do about this? How do we proceed?”

“With the ADD or with the marriage?”

Now it was his turn not to be amused. He went on to describe the kinds of medication I could take but then said he wasn’t suggesting I do anything if I didn’t think I was a problem to myself. “People who grew up before this condition was named or treated have often found ingenious ways to compensate for their disabilities. Writing for me, he said, was a prime example of what he called compensatory behavior.

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “I write books in order to make up for my inability to remember the names of the people I meet at a party, or because I come home from the grocery store with a red pepper instead of a tomato?”

“Well not exactly,” he said but before he could explain exactly what he meant, the hour was up.

I don’t know, maybe I was a tad defensive with the psychologist–you think?– and even a little miffed by his reduction of the art I love and have devoted my life to for the better part of almost forty years to a side effect of a neurological condition. At the same time, telling the story over I can’t help but ask myself, “Why do I write?” Is writing a compensation for psychological, emotional or even neurological deficits? Do we write, as the old saying goes, because we can’t do? Is art, as Freud believed, a kind of socially acceptable wish fulfillment for asocial infantile desires? A way of finding in imagination what we lost in life? A sublimation of sexual energy? A way of transmuting our hidden wishes or shameful secrets, our failures and losses and humiliations into beautiful objects that win us wealth and admiration and all the sexual fulfillment that we put off in order to do the work in the first place? Why else get into the poetry racket? That I could even ask this question, even in jest, much less attempt to make my way in the world by writing poetry is yet another manifestation of an abiding suspicion I’ve had for many years now that god put me on earth to disprove the stereotype that all Jews make money.

I once asked a very talented student of mine why she wanted to become a writer. Fame, she said. I want to be famous. And what did fame mean to her? It meant being able to check into the penthouse suite of a five star hotel and totally trash the room and then be loved for it. This quintessentially American celebrity-driven fantasy is just the self-indulgent flip side of an older, time honored messianic fantasy of the writer as unacknowledged cultural legislator. Seamus Heaney has written that poetry or great writing of any kind provides a culture with images adequate to its predicament. Who hasn’t dreamed of providing everyone with images adequate to their predicament and being loved for it, and maybe even given loads of cash? When we’re in our teens and early twenties, maybe we all dream of becoming celebrated shamans of the heart, but that adolescent daydream doesn’t begin to explain why we continue writing after the age of 25 or 30, once we realize that the world isn’t exactly rushing out to take its marching orders from anything we’ve written.

I think of my dear friend Tim Dekin, a wonderful poet, who died a few years ago at the age of 58 of pulmonary fibrosis. Tim’s first full-length book, Another Day on Earth, was published posthumously in 2002 by TriQuarterly Books. Tim and I met at Stanford in 1975. Eventually, we both ended up teaching in the Chicago area. He was a brilliant talker, a fabulous poet, and a very funny man who lost many years of his writing life to alcoholism. He held down a series of demanding low paying jobs teaching freshmen comp at various universities. After years of struggling unsuccessfully to find a publisher for his poetry, he wrote three very good novels that he likewise couldn’t publish. In his last year of life, he returned to his first love, poetry, and finished his magnificent one book. Tethered to his oxygen machine, he drove from Chicago to Chapel Hill not long before he died so he and I could go over his new poems and put the manuscript together. My brother had just died, and I had broken up with my wife and was living in a basement apartment. Neither Tim nor I were in very good shape at the time, physically or otherwise.

During that visit, I told Tim a joke that a musician friend of mine told me about the four stages in a musician’s career: The first stage is “Who is Richard Luby?” The second stage is “Get me Richard Luby.” The third stage is “Get me a young Richard Luby!” And the fourth stage is “Who is Richard Luby?” Tim laughed at the joke, then added ruefully, “I seemed to have passed from stage one to stage four without ever having passed through stages two and three.”

I cherish the memory of those few days with Tim, and I love the image of us in my dreary digs, Tim’s poems spread out on the coffee table, Tim puffing on the oxygen tube the way he puffed on the forbidden cigars he still occasionally smoked, leaning over the poems, reading out passages, discussing them, rewriting them, the two of us beset with troubles, physical and emotional, but working rapturously nonetheless throughout the day and long into the night. What exactly were we doing? What lack were we trying to fill? What were we compensating for? Whatever it was, fame and fortune had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Which is not to say I don’t desire fame and fortune. I do. I do. I’m not above them. In fact, I’m so far beneath them that I’d even happily forget fame if I could have just a little fortune. When I take a good hard look at the life I’ve chosen, I have to wonder how I’ve stuck it out as long as I have. For there’s a Grand Canyon’s worth of difference between the literary life I dreamed of as an adolescent and the life I found once I began to publish and actually live what passes for a literary life.

I remember thinking in my teens and early twenties that if I could only publish a poem in a magazine, any magazine, I’d feel fulfilled and validated and wildly happy. And then I got my first publication. And I was happy for a day or so, until the bill arrived for the printing cost, and then I thought if I could only get a poem into a real journal, into a magazine that pays, I’d feel validated and happy, and when that happened, I began to feel the need to publish in the Atlantic Monthly or the New Yorker, magazines that someone other than my fellow writers may have heard of, and eventually when that happened I believed that only publishing a book with a reputable press would make me feel as if I’d earned the right to call myself a poet. And then I published a book, and the resounding silence and inattention of the world (it’s my books that suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder, not me), made me feel that the only measure of my poetic worth would be to get a book reviewed somewhere by someone I didn’t know, someone who wasn’t related to me, and when that occurred, and pleased me and the pleasure passed, I thought that only winning a big book award could quell this anxiety about my literary worth. I didn’t realize how preoccupied I was with literary recognition till one day I overheard my seven year old son negotiating with my five year old daughter over who got to hold the TV’s remote control. He said, Izzy, if you give me the controller I’ll give you a Pulitzer Prize. I’ve been at this long enough to know that even if god himself, the lord almighty, hallowed be his name, came down from heaven and gave me a big fat kiss on the back of the brain, I’d probably shrug it off: “What? That’s it? For years you don’t write, you don’t call, and now all I get is a lousy kiss?”

Don’t get me wrong. Acclaim of any kind is wonderful, except when it goes to someone else. But even at its best, that sort of “reward” or “recognition” is like cotton candy: it looks ample enough until you put it in your mouth, then it evaporates. All taste, and no nourishment.

Then there’s the thrill of dealing with editors. By way of illustration, let me tell you a story. In 1976, before I’d published anything, I wrote a long windy poem called Fathers and Sons. I sent it to the journal Quarterly West. The editor sent the poem back with a note suggesting I rewrite the middle two sections and resubmit it. I knew from watching the editors of Sequoia, the Stanford literary journal, that all editors are overworked and underpaid and can’t possibly read everything that crosses their desk with keen attention. So I waited six months and sent the poem back unchanged with a letter thanking the editor for his suggestions, all of which I said I took. I even thanked him for his help and said that even if he didn’t accept the poem I was still in his debt for his suggestions had made the poem new to me again, and more like what I initially envisioned when I started writing it. Within days, I received a letter from the editor accepting the poem and commending me for my professionalism.

In 1997, in this very auditorium, I participated in an editor’s roundtable. At the time, I was the editor of the University of Chicago’s Phoenix Poets Series, and I told this story in order to make the point that writers need to treat what editors tell them with a healthy dose of skepticism. Don’t presume an editor is smart just because he or she is an editor. Editors should have to earn their authority by reading what you send them with intelligence and imagination, and that in any case they themselves, the writers, ought always to be the ultimate arbiters of what they do. Editors, I said, are mostly obstacles to get around. I returned to Bread Loaf two years later, and one of the students here stopped to thank me for my advice back in 1997. He said he followed it and it worked like a charm. What do you mean, I asked. What advice? “Well, I got a poem back from Boulevard, and the editor suggested I do a major rewrite. So I waited six months like you said and sent it back with a letter thanking him for his time and help, and he accepted the poem.” The moral of this story isn’t that editors are fools, though some are. The moral isn’t that you should all con your way into print, though if you do more power to you. Rather, the moral is you needn’t listen to everything an editor tells you. The moral is you need to be cynical about publishing in order not to be cynical about writing, in order to protect and preserve the deeply private joy of doing the work itself (I’ll say more about that private joy in a moment). I know it’s hard, sometimes impossible, to keep the po biz out of the poetry, to keep the anxieties and injustices of trying to publish from contaminating your own relationship to what you do. It’s hard to find the proper balance between the arrogance we need to keep on writing, the arrogance that assumes that we have something worth saying, and that we’re smart enough to learn what someone’s smart enough to teach us; and the humility we also need in order to grow and develop, the humility that knows that we cannot nurture and refine our gifts without the help of others, that other people including editors can sometimes tell us things we need to hear. Too much arrogance and not enough humility and we close ourselves off from the world, and nothing new comes in and we eventually become imitators of ourselves, turning what at one time were discoveries into mannerisms. And too much humility and not enough arrogance and we lose our center of gravity and find ourselves at the mercy of everyone else’s opinion. Striking the right balance between humility and arrogance is another exhausting and often frustrating aspect of the writing life.

And then there’s the frustration that surrounds the work itself, the work we’ve already done and the work we want to do. The dissatisfactions we often feel toward older work, not to mention the frustrations we often feel toward what we’re writing now as well as the anxieties we feel toward what we may do next, put me in mind of the old joke about the Jew who’s shipwrecked on a desert island. Twenty years later, he’s discovered, but before he leaves he wants to show his saviors the three synagogues he’s built: “Over there,” he says, “is the synagogue I used to go to. Over there’s the synagogue I go to now. And over there, that synagogue, I wouldn’t step foot in.” I know this is really a joke about class and status, and the need to feel superior to something. But I do think the more we refine our abilities, the more embarrassing our older work becomes. That is, if we’re truly lucky, we’ll despise our early work. If we’re lucky, we’ll feel as if nearly everything but what we’re writing now was written by someone else we’d rather not be seen in public with. And if we’re lucky, what we’re writing now won’t compare with what we’ll write ten years from now. That’s the price we pay for getting better. The problem is the better we get at writing, the better we get at imagining getting even better. So the discrepancy between the writer we are and the writer we want to be only widens as we improve. To flourish as an artist requires a tolerance for frustration, inadequacy and a deepening sense of failure.

And that’s the good news. Now let’s consider the effect of what we write on those we write about. Over the years, I learned the hard way that no one wants to give up narrative control over his or her life. Yet my theory’s always been that if I try to tell the truth, if I have no ax to grind and write about others in a spirit of forgiveness, curiosity and understanding, then no one should be upset by anything I say. Well, so much for theory. Even the most affectionate portrait of a loved one, the most intimate praise (never mind depictions of estrangement or disaffection) can and will offend. In 1996, I published a book of personal essays. My mother called to congratulate me. “Have you heard from anybody yet about the book?” She asked. “Only my shrink,” I joked. “He’s upset that I’ve gone public with stories I should have only shared with him. He’s threatening to sue me, Ma!” “That’s ridiculous,” she’s said, not joking, deadly serious. “If anyone’s going to sue you over this book it’s me.”

But even if we never write about our families, there’s still the often-painful fallout on our families from the dedication, time and solitude that the art requires. I don’t want to suggest, even for a moment, that artistic success depends on domestic instability, or that there’s any correlation between art and suffering. One doesn’t have to have a tortured soul to become a writer. Or rather our souls don’t have to be tortured any more than most people’s souls are tortured. Catastrophe or self-destructiveness is no prerequisite for the position. Nor need one be a drunk, a womanizer or a victim of abuse. If bad behavior or bad luck were essential ingredients of a writing life, our de-tox centers, prisons and twelve step programs would be full of writers. All one has to do to be a writer is to write. We’re writers only when we’re writing. Writing, in other words, is an activity, it’s something we do, and not something we are. When we’re not writing, each of us is just another poor slob trying to get through the day without hurting anyone too much. That said, let’s also recognize that many of us live within rather stringent economies of energy, and to do this is not to do that. With jobs, kids, relationships, it’s impossible to balance the competing claims of life and art without slighting one in favor of the other. I should add too that the muse is an especially demanding and jealous mistress, and most of us when we’re not writing wish we were. It may be that even if I were a shepherd or a proctologist, I’d be just as troubled as I’ve often been throughout my life, struggling to satisfy both my need to work and my need to love. Maybe, but I doubt it. The fact is, like most writers, I’ve been and continue to be monomaniacal about putting in my hours at the desk. And that dedication to work has sometimes proven lethal to my loves and friendships.

So the work itself always entails frustration and failure; it can damage our most intimate relationships; its public rewards are illusory at worst, fleeting at best. And if you write poetry, hardly anyone is listening. So why do it?

Elizabeth Bishop provides a possible answer in a famous letter to Anne Stevenson. Bishop writes that what we want from great art is the same thing necessary for its creation, and that is, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration. We write, Bishop implies, for the same reason we read or look at paintings or listen to music: for the total immersion of the experience, the narrowing and intensification of focus to the right here right now, the deep joy of bringing the entire soul to bear upon a single act of concentration. It is self-forgetful even if you are writing about the self because you yourself have disappeared into the pleasure of making, your identity, the incessant transient noisy New York Stock Exchange of desires and commitments, ambitions, hopes, hates, appetites and interests have been obliterated by the rapture of complete attentiveness. In that extended moment, opposites cohere: the mind feels and the heart thinks, and receptivity’s a form of fierce activity. Quotidian distinctions between mind and body, self and other, space and time, dissolve. Athletes know all about this nearly hallucinatory state. They call it being in the zone. They feel simultaneously out of body and at one with body. I also think that infants inhabit a rudimentary version of this state of being. When my children were babies, I would often awaken in the morning to the sound of my son or daughter babbling happily in the crib. They’d be talking but the meaning of the words were indistinguishable from the sensation of the sound, and the sound was part and parcel of the mouth that made the sound, of the hands and fingers that the mouth was sucking on as it sang. No matter how sophisticated our poems may be, or how deadly serious they are about eradicating or exposing the terrible injustices around us, I still think that we are trying, by means of words, of consciousness, to reawaken that preverbal joy, to repossess, re-inhabit what someone else has called the seriousness of a child at play. Bishop says this concentration’s useless because it is its own reward, the mysterious joy of it. It is singing for the sake of singing. And even if the singing pleases others or consoles them, stirs them to further the cause of justice in the world, or simply brings the parent to the crib with food, warmth and maybe a dry diaper, those effects and ramifications are nonetheless incidental to the primal fundamental urge to sing, to the sheer gaiety (to borrow a word from Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli”) of projecting our voices out into the ambient air.

Maybe it’s because I do have ADD and have always been a deeply and often painfully distracted human being, but my best days are the ones in which I sit down at the desk at 9 am, and look up to discover that it’s 3 pm, and that 6 hours have passed in a single moment. It doesn’t matter ultimately whether what I’ve written is any good or not. I always feel renewed and grateful if the material, whatever it is, induces that self-forgetful perfectly useless concentration. While I’m working I’m only working, nothing else exists. Inside and outside feel perfectly aligned, and throughout the full range of my faculties and sensibilities I’m entirely alert, entirely present, and this, for me, too rare experience of being there, wholly there, never fails to exhilarate. While it lasts, there’s no joy like it. And it never lasts long enough, or happens often enough to satisfy my yearning for it. Dickinson describes its passing as a “sumptuous destitution.” Wallace Stevens expresses the desperate longing to prolong this blessed state when he says in “Solitude Among Cataracts” that he wants to die in “a permanent realization.” The pleasure of that concentration is addictive, and it’s that addiction, I think, that accounts for the restlessness and melancholy many writers feel when they’re not writing. It’s not, as Berryman believed, that poets need to suffer in order to write; that misery produces art; it’s rather that that self-forgetful perfectly useless concentration makes them happy, is itself the happiness that may elude them or never come so purely or reliably in their non-writing lives.

In February of 2001, a month before Tim died, I flew to Chicago to spend a few last days with him. Tim was bed-ridden by then, his breathing labored, his consciousness a little compromised by lack of oxygen. One afternoon, Reg Gibbons, his good friend and editor at TriQuarterly Books, Reg’s wife Cornelia Spelman, and I were sitting around Tim’s bed, talking about poetry, as we almost always did. The subject of Tim’s forthcoming book came up. He had just seen a mock up of the cover, which consisted of a picture of Tim fly-fishing, one of his great passions and the subject of many of the poems in the book. Tim was happy with the cover, and hopeful that he’d be around when the book came out in the fall. I don’t remember who suggested this, but Reg and I began to take turns reading from the last poem in the book, a poem in four sections called “Woodmanship.” Tim by then was too weak to read out loud. His eyes were closed throughout the reading while his fingers tapped out the rhythm of the poem on the bed’s railing. Though fly-fishing is the occasion of the poem, the subject is really acceptance of mortality, failure and loss, and the value of joy in all its elusiveness. Reg got to read the magnificent final section in which the speaker fishes with a young boy he has befriended:

Early the next morning, I poach
In the Rod and Gun Club, the boy beside me,
In pitch black, making our way by starlight
And the cold flowing river.
We’re being careful of sheriffs with sidearms,
I tell him, though an expensive ticket’s about
The worst for getting caught these days.

In the preserve of the privileged, I whisper,
Honest men take small breaths to avoid
The smell of wasted, rotting game.
But poachers breathe
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspFrom the soles of their feet
The blue ribbon trout streams.
Now pine needles, now pungent, spongy sucking
Gives way to commotion: the slapping and thrashing
Of twenty-pound steelhead trout on the shallow gravel—
The bucks are biting each other’s tails,
The hens are heavy with roe.
My heart aches.

Then finally, the long, moon-shimmering slick
Coming down hard into a sucking whirlpool.
In my desire it is already light.

The boy fishes: a crisp, short, roll cast—
And a huge steelie takes the lure deep in the hole.
The trout jerks its massively-jawed head once,
Then twice, as if trying to shake off a nightmare.
The boy strikes sideways, downstream,
To set the hook firmly.

I wait, calm, observant, almost indifferent now,
But still the old feeling comes—
Well being. Delight being. Joy being.
The sun breaking,
Birch branch shiny with spilled light
(Is it black on white
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspor white on black?)
The only difference now my knowing enough not to think.

Go joy. Fly.
I don’t need you,
Which is why you’ve come,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspWelcome back
My childhood’s earliest familiar,
Omnipresent except when desired.
Still, if you will, take bread at my hand
Like any unsuspecting creature of the forest,
Eat the trail of crumbs I left to find my way back.

An explosion goes off in the whirlpool:
Silver with a rosy pink underbelly,
Predatory, unsuspecting, all of creation
Caught in its exquisite contortions,
A steelhead leaps—
The burden of the past and the future lifting—
Two feet out of the water
And throws the hook.

I move up beside the boy to praise his effort;
I try to comfort his unfathomable loss.

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspThe poem of course is also about writing, the moment of creation, when we forget all else but the task at hand, when preparation and luck coincide, when the burden of the past and the future lifts, and exhilaration comes, what Tim calls delight being, joy being, his childhood’s familiar. The poem, itself, he implies, the writing of it, is both the crumbs that lead us as adults back to that childhood paradise, and the measure of how far we’ve traveled from it. When the moment passes, and the poem’s written, and we rise from the desk to return to the world awaiting us, our tangled loves and commitments, the exhilaration is nearly indistinguishable from “unfathomable loss”.

Career-wise, Tim’s life was not a happy one. At the same time, in his last six years he remarried, had another child, and despite his worsening physical condition he did his finest writing. His life, in fact, contradicts the cliché that great art springs from misery. Illness and the terrors of dying certainly inform Tim’s rueful, funny, heart wrenching final poems, but so too do the joys of fatherhood, and marriage, and the deep pleasure of domestic peace. The poems, in fact, are inconceivable without them. Ill as he was, in his last years Tim had never been so happy, as a writer or a man.

Early and late, though, Tim’s only constant was his work, his poetry, the pleasure of sitting down to write each morning, and those marvelous days when hours would pass in what would feel like seconds. Through all the vagaries of love and loss, addiction, illness and recovery, he took delight in the work, and the delight and the surprise that found him as he wrote these final poems is now our delight and surprise as we read them. It was for that pleasure that he wrote. It was for that self-forgetful perfectly useless concentration that he kept on writing even when the world paid no attention. He didn’t write for fame, however much he may have longed for recognition and suffered keenly for the lack of it. He wrote for the sheer joy of the writing, which, as a writer, was his most durable sustenance. It was less than he deserved, but, lucky for us, it was enough to keep him going.

Why I Write ~ Randall Mann

WHY I WRITE ~ Randall Mann

I write because I am an addict, addicted to (say it) negative capability; to the strange engagement of the mind and simultaneous self-forgetting. To that fuzzy coming to after hours of wordplay.

I’m no theorist, but I suppose I write to hold fast to yet hold at bay the minutiae of world, to make some sense of the nonsense.

(I live in San Francisco, which provides endless bewitching non-sequiturs. “Look out,” a young woman warned me in front of Dolores Park a couple weeks ago, “there’s killer tofu about.”)

(I am drawn to words like oral sex or good shoes, like a Prather Ranch burger at Slow Club or a dawn walk on Ocean Beach.)

I write for much the same reason I sleep on one side of the bed only: I am pitilessly shaped by my past; I love constraint; I am, god help me, hopeful.

Why I Write ~ Amy Pence

WHY I WRITE ~ Amy Pence

When I consider the question: “Why do you write?,” a spiral comes to mind. I grew up among humid courtyards and peered over balconies in the French Quarter: Chartes, Bourbon, Barracks, and Decatur. There, I sought to stay small, and so, unnoticed, I could observe. Like Oskar in the Tin Drum, I remained small (with much regret now). Walking the Quarter’s maze of streets—because we could even walk alone by ourselves then—meant that I could keep going into the interior— to find what was hidden: those talismans of value, beauty, and terrible isolation. There were lives lived on street corners, artists hanging their wares, musicians toiling alone; there was a thick history (and energy) ensconced in an object—spectacles, a photograph, a handkerchief; there was the foul smell of watermelons split open and rotting on the pavement, the low throaty sound of arriving ships at night. As I grew older, writing became a mysterious spiral that could enfold detail, figure, sensation, memory. I wound somatically inward. Writing—at first just keeping a journal—helped me—like many writers and artists—to track what felt intolerable in my home life. It enabled me to cope with the contradictions of my adolescence in Las Vegas. Through writing, I could begin to grasp meaning, identity, and essence. Poet Jane Hirshfield understands that “The writer reaches by means of language into the outer world—the world of things, and also of words themselves and their storehoused wisdom—in order to question and discover the texture and substance of being.”

Now in mid-life, I’ve found that the way in is also the way out. Writing non-fiction, and now fiction, means that I can better find my way out of the labyrinth. Beyond the centered minotaur, worlds appear, and lives radiate from this one. While the poem distills, the story opens a vision that encompasses as much of other lives as I can imagine. It is essential as an artist to find the way out of the spiral. Even more, such fruition is essential to evolve as a human and to know compassion. My favorite quote from Adrienne Rich is “Human eyes…[see] resemblance in difference—the core of metaphor, that which lies close to the core of poetry itself, the only hope for a humane civil life.” For me, writing can bring all of us closer to this metaphor: life lived in & out of form.

Why I Write ~ Patricia Smith

WHY I WRITE ~ Patricia Smith

It began with my father.

Grizzled and slight, flasher of a marquee gold tooth, Otis Douglas Smith was Arkansas grit suddenly sporting city clothes. Part of the Great Migration of blacks from the South to northern cities in the early 1950s, he found himself not in the urban Mecca he’d imagined, but in a roach-riddled tenement apartment on Chicago’s West Side. There he attempted to craft a life along side the bag boys, day laborers, housekeepers and cooks who dreamed the city’s wide, unreachable dream.

Many of those urban refugees struggled to fit, but my father never really adopted the no-nonsense-now rhythm of the city. There was too much of the storyteller in him, too much unleashed southern song still waiting for the open air. From the earliest days I can recall, my place was on his lap, touching a hand to his stubbled cheek and listening to his growled narrative, mysterious whispers and wide-open laughter.

Because of him, I grew to think of the world in terms of the stories it could tell. From my father’s moonlit tales of steaming Delta magic to the sweet slow songs of Smokey Robinson, I became addicted to unfolding drama, winding narrative threads, the lyricism of simple words. I believed that we all lived in the midst of an ongoing adventure that begged for voice. In my quest for that voice, I found poetry.

Poetry was the undercurrent of every story I heard and read. It was the essence, the bones and the pulse. I could think of no better way to communicate than with a poem, where pretense is stripped away, leaving only what is beautiful and vital.

Poetry became the way I processed the world. In neon-washed bars, community centers and bookstores, I breathed out necessary breath, taking the stage and sharing stanzas with strangers, anxious wordsmiths who were also bag boys, day laborers, housekeepers and cooks. I loved the urgency of their voices and the way they sparked urgency in mine.

Why I Write ~ Barbara Crooker

WHY I WRITE ~ Barbara Crooker

WHY WRITE?

Because I’m here, this late in the century,
looking at the ink-filled sky,
seeing the April comet, a luminous exclamation,
not believing, with the alternatives
of nuclear char or unchecked epidemic,
that anything from our time will last.
But still, I was here, on this rock,
this shaley hillside, violets blooming
in the grass, for a short time. I suffered,
I lived, I loved in the face of everything,
and I have to write it down.

“Because the world is round it turns me on.” (John Lennon)

Because, as Stephen King says, “What makes you think I have a choice?”

Because I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

Because “love calls us to the things of the world.” (Richard Wilbur)

Because “the Blues is truth” (Buddy Guy) and so is poetry.

Because in poetry, “Nothing is lost, everything is transformed” (Antoine Lavoisier, father of modern chemistry.”

Because “all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story” (Isak Dinensen) or a poem.

Because there is no other language for joy.

Because “grapes want to turn to wine.” (Rumi)

Because, to quote myself again, there’s “one small / life, and it’s never enough.” (“How the Trees on Summer Nights Turn Into a Dark River”)

Why I Write ~ Michelle McGrane

WHY I WRITE ~ Michelle McGrane


I want to share one of my favourite excerpts on writing with you. It’s from an essay by author, naturalist and environmental activist, Terry Tempest Williams, entitled “Why I Write”, one of over thirty insightful pieces included in the volume Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Carolyn Forché and Philip Gerard (Writer’s Digest Books, 2001).

I can’t put it better than this:

“I write to make peace with the things I cannot control. I write to create red in a world that often appears black and white. I write to discover. I write to uncover. I write to meet my ghosts. I write to begin a dialogue. I write to imagine things differently and in imagining things differently perhaps the world will change. I write to honor beauty. I write to correspond with my friends. I write as a daily act of improvisation. I write because it creates my composure. I write against power and for democracy. I write myself out of my nightmares and into my dreams. I write in solitude born out of community. I write to the questions that shatter my sleep. I write to the answers that keep me complacent. I write to remember. I write to forget. I write to the music that opens my heart. I write to quell the pain. I write to migrating birds with the hubris of language. I write as a form of translation. I write with the patience of melancholy in winter. I write because it allows me to confront that which I do not know. I write as an act of faith. I write as an act of slowness. I write to record what I love in the face of loss. I write because it makes me less fearful of death. I write as an exercise in pure joy. I write as one who walks on the surface of a frozen river beginning to melt. I write out of anger and into my passion. I write from stillness of night anticipating – always anticipating. I write to listen. I write out of silence. I write to soothe the voices shouting inside me, outside me, all around. I write because of the humor of our condition as humans. I write because I believe in words. I write because I do not believe in words. I write because it is a dance with paradox. I write because you can play on the page like a child left alone in the sand. I write because it belongs to the force of the moon: high tide, low tide. I write because it is the way I take long walks. I write to bow to the wilderness. I write because it can create a path in darkness. I write because as a child I spoke a different language. I write with a knife carving each word through the generosity of trees. I write as ritual. I write because I am not employable. I write out of inconsistencies. I write because then I do not have to speak. I write with the colors of memory. I write as a witness to what I have seen. I write as a witness to what I imagine. I write by grace and grit. I write out of indigestion. I write when I am starving. I write when I am full. I write to the dead. I write out of the body. I write to put food on the table. I write on the other side of procrastination. I write for children we never had. I write for a love of ideas. I write for the surprise of a beautiful sentence. I write with the belief of alchemists. I write knowing I will always fail. I write knowing words will always fall short. I write knowing I can be killed by my own words, stabbed by syntax, crucified by both understanding and misunderstanding. I write out of ignorance. I write by accident. I write past the embarrassment of exposure. I keep writing and suddenly, I am overcome by sheer indulgence, the madness, the meaninglessness, the ridiculousness of this list. I trust nothing, especially myself, and slide headfirst into the familiar abyss of doubt and humiliation and threaten to push the delete button on my way down, or madly erase each line, pick up the paper and rip it to shreds – and then I realize, it doesn’t matter, words are always a gamble, words are splinters of cut glass. I write because it is dangerous, a bloody risk, like love, to form the words, to say the words, to touch the source, to be touched, to reveal how vulnerable we are, how transient we are.

I write as though I am whispering in the ear of the one I love.”

– Terry Tempest Williams from “Why I Write”, Writing Creative Nonfiction: Instruction and insights from the teachers of the Associated Writing Programs, edited by Carolyn Forché and Philip Gerard (Writer’s Digest Books, 2001)

Read more about Terry Tempest Williams here.

WHY I WRITE ~ Mary Jo Bang

WHY I WRITE ~ Mary Jo Bang

My biological father (who left home when I was four) kept a daily journal for over fifty years weirdly recording times down to the minute (5:38, not 5:40), the weather and its vicissitudes, which roads he drove to work (various), and what he bought if he stopped at the drugstore (Tums), etc. At night he typed and shaped it. He kept the pages, divided into years, in over-sized three-ring binders. He called it The Story of My Life. There are thousands of pages. Some genetic debt undoubtedly drives my compulsion to write. Of course, there’s also everything I’ve ever read, and every one I’ve ever met, including my mother, whom I met early.