Why do you write? Not a stupid question—one that comes up endlessly in online writers’ groups—but generally one to be dodged. You can contemplate it for hours, turn it over and around and about, or you can write.
I’ve always found my own answers flippant or bloated, sometimes bits of both. But I guess my reluctance to face the question stems from not wanting to be limited by my answer. I don’t only want to entertain or to change the world or to get famous—from time to time I may want any of those, but in the words of that esteemed Western Cole Porter song, “Don’t fence me in.”
Lately, I’ve found myself thinking about it more. Into my 80’s, I don’t want to accumulate more clutter for my survivors, and words are pretty lightweight. And something more. If you vowed to post on Facebook every cat photo on the face of Earth, people might intuit a purpose (to amuse, to assert cats’ rights, etc.), but your focus would be on your task. For me, writing is like that vow.
I’m returning from an overnight trip to see a John McCutcheon concert. He’s a prolific songwriter and superb performer, well worth the three-hour drive each way. Now in his 70’s, it’s an extremely fertile time for him, he said. And I wondered—whether it’s cat photos or songs or stories—if we simply share a need to proclaim that we’re still alive.
Maybe it’s not much different from the kid who gouges his initials into the school desk or the guy who writes his stories and songs with bullets. Our method cause less damage in asserting our existence, though we garner fewer headlines.
But hearing McCutcheon, I also felt a connection of purpose. His best work creates an empathy with others; I have a chronic urge to understand, from the inside, characters I don’t know, don’t want to know, but at least to empathize. I could not personally, as St. Francis is said to have done, kiss the leper, might not even give him a buck. But at least I want to try to see him.