Every time I start a writing class, I ask them to compose a “Why I Write” essay. I was given the assignment in a writing class once upon a time, and I think it is a good one. Periodically, I take a new crack at it. I have never been happy with the results. They always seem overly-pretentious, heavily clichéd, and more than a little dishonest. What follows is my attempt to rectify past inadequacies.
I came to writing late. Much later than anyone else I know who writes seriously. I never voluntarily wrote anything creative until college. I spent too long wrapped in the idea that knowledge was finite. That the primary goal of all society should be to learn as much as possible about what was already there. I did not, for whatever reason, think that creating something new and relevant was possible. I mean that literally. I could not fathom new creation.
Then, when I was a senior in high school, two very important things happened. One, I started to play the guitar. Two, I fell – quite hard – for a girl who was dating a friend of mine.
I was quick, as so many have been, to make the connection between music and romance, and this is what prompt my first real efforts at writing. I would write songs, I decided. She would hear them and, obviously, want to be with me.
It didn’t work out that way, of course. A year or so after I started my creative endeavors, we had a falling out and didn’t speak for two years. I kept writing songs. Mostly about her. Some of them were decent. Some of them weren’t.
In the interim, I took a fiction writing class because I thought it would be easy. I engaged in the typical copying of stuff I liked. None of it was any good. Much of it was – yes, still – about that girl.
I wish I could paint a more interesting picture. Along the way, I did begin to write some things that, even today, I am not actively ashamed of. Many, many of them involved a lonely narrator who had lost a girl. It was a theme. But I also started to hear other stories in my head and I came across the answer I always give now when someone asks why I write. It is not an entirely honest answer, but I say that I write because there are these stories in my head and if I don’t write them no one else will. It is true. That is why I write. But that is not all.
Eventually, the girl and I reconnected. We even dated for a while in a fiery, disastrous kind of way that ended with me living back where I grew up, alone and terribly depressed for reasons that go beyond being left and come from watching cruelty too often practiced on those we care for.
I started writing a novel. It was an accident. It was about a jazz piano player who falls for a singer. They have a tempestuous on and off thing and end up together. It was okay. I might go back to it someday. But, just to be clear. I was a blues guitarist and the girl was a singer and I had not yet given up hope of us getting together. I see now how terribly wrong the ending of that first book was.
It took a few years where I didn’t do much beyond work my dead-end job, write sometimes, and play guitar, but I did come out of it. There was a new story and though loss of a woman was part of it, that wasn’t the whole. There was more. I started to dance around in it. I was still writing for an audience, but I was less sure now of who that audience was. And, in truth, it was probably a version of me. I think I often wrote to not feel lonely, but there was something else. The nagging voice that wouldn’t let me go. And vague hopes of recognition, even fame, because I thought this was really, maybe turning into something.
And then I met Cate and it happened that she was a writer, too. A really good writer. She tore apart the first thing I showed her, but she liked it and she asked to see more and I showed it to her and she liked that and then, well, it went from there.
And it strikes me now, how terribly wrong the first girl was for me. How it never would have worked even though there are parallels between that relationship and my marriage. Between her experiences and Cate’s. Everything was off, just a touch, in way that made life disorienting and disturbing like a piano with one key out of tune.
I thought I was writing for this first girl, but really, I was writing for who I wanted her to be. I was writing for Cate. I didn’t know it, but even now, I can see how those first clumsy stories might have appealled to Cate. How they are often not so dissimilar in execution from other things she loved.
And in that time I spent waiting, I learned a great deal. I learned to be honest in my writing and to not do disservice to my characters by writing wrong endings for them because the real endings, the ones that should be written, weren’t what I wanted them to be. I learned to stop trying to say something and to just write instead. The saying something would work itself out.
Still today, when I sit down to write – something work and children keep from happening enough – I write because of the little pinprick voices whispering stories at my internal ear. But I write also for Cate because she has always had the standards I want in a reader. When I suspect that she will not like it, I am really suspecting that I have not been honest – even if that honesty requires something I do not want to give.
And so, I write to give voice to the stories. And I write in hopes that other will want to hear those same voices. And I write especially for that one other who frowns when some is wrong and who smiles when I’ve gotten it just as it should be.