Why Do You Write?

It’s a trick question.  One we can only answer for ourselves.  For me, it begins in the past.

My parents were born in Alabama in the 1920s.  Their parents were farmers.  They were poor and poorly educated.  My mother never made it past the eighth grade and my father earned his high school diploma when he returned from the war.  Their lives were made up of dramatic stories: the early deaths of their mothers, brothers who fought each other, brothers killed in the war or by their own hand.  There was my mother’s childhood stigma of a crossed-eye from measles and my father’s war wound that sent him seesawing between pain pills and alcohol.  In some ways my parents’ childhoods were straight out of the story worlds of Faulkner and O’Connor.

But when I was a kid, I didn’t know that.  I just knew there was a lot of drama in their pasts, and sometimes in our present.

On my elementary school report cards, teachers sometimes complained I daydreamed.  In sixth grade I wrote a one-page essay comparing my parents, sober and intoxicated, to Jekyll and Hyde.  These were early glimmers of my imagination.  I don’t ever remember anyone reading a book to me, though I do recall liking the book, The Swiss Family Robinson, in fourth grade.  I remember I liked to jot down words—words I sometimes made up because I liked the sound of them and the meanings I thought they held.  Later, the music my sisters played gave me words to ponder, and somewhere along the way I started writing lyrics to songs I wanted to sing.  They were terrible songs (I can’t sing and could hardly play the guitar), but those lyrics led to poems, and my interest in words became real to me.  I was a writer of poems.  This was around the age of twenty.

When my first poems were published in a St. Augustine arts folio, I was immensely proud.  For me, that pride is where the trouble begins, and why the question, Why do I write?, is tricky.  I wanted to be published.  I wanted to be read.  I wanted people to see my work and think I was smart and talented.  Pride, I think, boiled down to I wanted my writing to fill a deficit in my self-worth.  If I could write, publish, and have admirers, then I wouldn’t be the kid who hated school, almost failed entire grades, and was raised by dirt farmers.

I realize now that where I come from matters immensely to why I write.

I loved my parents.  They gave me so many gifts, and they loved me.  They were intelligent, driven, and caring people.  But they had hard lives that boiled down to my father’s compromised health—a bullet in the neck delivered by a German sniper resulted in a damaged nervous system, the loss of an arm, a smaller and weaker left leg, and phantom pains.  There’s a John Prine song that says, “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm, that’s where all the money goes.”  My father wasn’t addicted to heroin and he wasn’t irresponsible with money, but his wound was a black void where so much of our lives disappeared into, including pieces of my self-esteem.

So I wrote and I had some things published and it propped up my view of myself.  It was exciting.  I remember showing my friend’s mother.  “You don’t have to read it,” I said.  “I just wanted you to see my name in print.”  Publishing equaled stature in my mind.  In grad school, I had a story published in The Yale Review.  To me, the name of the journal meant more to me than anything.  Me, Mark McBride, the guy who earned a “D” in his first college writing course, had been published at Yale.  My red clay, overalls-wearing, spittooned lineage was quickly fading.  I was among the learn-ed.

Or so I thought.

The thrill of publishing, however, was short lived.  I soon realized that in order to experience it, to be published in a respectable place (or any place for that matter), I had to rely on other people to make decisions I had no control over.  And in the years that followed, the disappointment I felt in their decisions was often repeated.  Rejection hurts.  I recall going into bookstores and seeking out the books of people I had gone to school with or had met along the way, some of whom I didn’t like very much, and feeling nothing short of bitterness.  Why them?  Why not me?  My jealousy was embarrassing and alienating and it absolutely killed my desire to write.  What was the use?  No one would read it.  And then came the periods when I didn’t write.  Months.  I had done a lot: raised children, completed my coursework for my PhD, locked in on a tenure-track teaching job.  My life was full.

Except for my writing.

I wanted to write, but I wasn’t, and the reason was me.  I was being a victim.  I was blaming others for not caring and interfering, and I was blaming myself for not being good enough.  So I began to ask myself, “Why do I really want to write?”

Robert Olen Butler makes this distinction:

The danger of wanting to be a writer is that it generally means “I want to get published, I want to win an award, I want to have a book.”  [. . .] I wrote those 12 god-awful plays, I wrote 44 dreadful short stories, and 5 awful novels.  I wrote a million words of dreck before I started writing really well.  And none of that stuff got published.  One of the problems I had was wanting to be a writer.

Butler says, “I want to be a writer is different from I want to write.”  I think this is crucial.  For me, I love the idea that “I am a writer,” but it can’t be the reason I write.  So a few years back I made a conscious decision to say I write because I want to write.  Published or not, the writing fuels me.  If I have a good morning of writing, I’ll feel it for the rest of the day.  It sticks with me.  The possibilities of creation are within my control.  The motivation is purely intrinsic.  No one pays me to do it, no one asks or expects me to do it, no one cares if I do it.  I do it because I want to do it.  It’s mine.  And no one can take that away from me.  This, for me, has to be the reason I write.  If what I write gets published, all the better.  But it’s not the reason I write.  As Butler says, “The work is the thing.  The work’s the thing.  The work is everything.”

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