Why Write?

My deepest motivation for writing has always been the drive to become more intimate with life. In the “Thanks” section of Edgewater, I wrote, “I’m deeply appreciative of the insects, birds, dogs, fish and other life-forms who make such frequent appearances in my world, and in my work. I don’t know how I could be a writer without them.”

This has always been true for me. The first poem I ever published, at age seven, was called Ode to a Raccoon.  My writing has been fueled by my urge to praise. Yet there is much in this world that is extremely difficult to praise; that’s exactly what kept me writing poems as my major art form for several decades! Poems have capacious arms; they encompass complexity, paradox and contradiction more fully than other forms, I feel.

As poet Jane Hirshfield says, Truth and beauty live most happily amid complexity and contradiction. 

Of course, becoming more intimate with life also requires ever-greater intimacy with myself. I don’t mean only my small, particular human self, though, but also that which comes through me from somewhere larger. I write, as the poet Audre Lorde said, to find out “what I didn’t know I knew.” For a very long time, I felt that my poems knew more than I did. Probably they still do, though I have worked hard over the decades to try to catch up.

I cherish those writers who have walked this path of truth and intimacy before me, and who walk it beside me. Here are some of the quotes that most inspire me:

You learn poetry moving step by step among things and beings, not isolating, but rather containing them all within a blind expansion of love. – Pablo Neruda

Mary Oliver wrote, I don’t ask for the sights in front of me to change – only the depth of my seeing. 

And before her, Rilke said, Everything that has been truly seen must become a poem. 

These days, I find much contemporary poetry filled with detachment, irony, cleverness and ennui. In this place (the United States) and in this moment of time, poetry that speaks passionately and with reverence is somewhat out of fashion. Yet that is the poetry that makes me love poetry; otherwise, as Marianne Moore said, I, too, dislike it. 

Here is Rilke again:

No one will find fruit who lacks reverence. For irreverence is like a storm that rips what is unripe from the branches… But art also is justice. And you must, if you wish to be an artist, grant all forces the right to lift you and press you down, shackle you and set you free.

And this:

I feel that I am on the way to becoming an intimate of everything that beauty preaches; that I am no longer a mere listener who receives its revelations like mute favors, that I am becoming more and more the things’ disciple.

May it be so! One of my favorite activities as a writing teacher is to walk the streets of Ashland, Ohio (simply because that’s where I happen to teach now; any streets would do), picking up stray leaves and bits of trash, then bringing them into the classroom for my students to closely examine, learn from and write about them. Who pressed this cigarette butt to their lips? What tree did this stick fall from, and what does it know?

And here is a small poem of my own, one that never made it into a book, which speaks to all of this:

Why and How 

As darkness comes, the lake continues to hold light from above. This gives the birds another way to fly. The birds of our hearts need that water too; they need to know themselves by moving against something larger. What we live does not exist only within us.  It has a life outside us, in the world.  With words we can approach and gaze into, honor and caress that larger life. What we can caress is thereby changed.

If we are silent, the beauty of our passage goes unrecognized.  If we do not tell the truth, shifting and shifty as it is, we risk remaining strangers to each other and ourselves. We live a life unseeing and unseen. But when we write, we slip beneath the hopeless, shining surface, and find ourselves able to swim. And there, where the lake holds reflected sky, we also fly.  Words make us light enough to float, slick enough to dive, strong enough to bear our emerging wings.

It’s true: we have been wrong, and wronged.  We have sinned against ourselves and each other.  To sin means to miss the mark, and we have often missed the mark of love.  And yet what matters is what we make of what happened.

We need to tell our stories because we live them, and live through them — and because just living them is not enough. If we do not speak, our lives fold in on themselves.  They cease to grow outward. By writing, we extend our seeing eyes, our touching hands.  The words live through us and beyond us, reflecting us to ourselves and each other, the way the skin of lake reflects the trees and sky.

I’m rather obsessed with the concept of truth, and the ways that writing allows us closer to it. Yet I can’t really talk about truth without also quoting Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote, Everything is true; only the opposite is true too; you must believe both equally or be damned. 

And William Faulkner: Facts and truth don’t have much to do with each other. 

And Clarence Darrow: Chase after the truth like all hell and you’ll be freed, even though you never touch its coattails. 

The great mystic Teilhard de Chardin spoke to the task of the writer, as I see it, when he said:

To create, or organize, material energy, or truth, or beauty… we must learn continually to jettison the form which our labor or art or thought first took, and go in search of new forms. Over and over again we must go beyond ourselves, tear ourselves away from ourselves, leaving behind us our most cherished beginnings. 

Or as Kurt Vonnegut said a bit more bluntly, We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.