Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why I Write

Why I WriteThe National Writing Project (NWP) is celebrating the National Day on Writing this year  partly through the “Why I Write” project, a laudatory effort to be sure.

They’ve garnered thousands of tweets, tons of essays, and held lots of interviews with famous writers.

As a long-time fellow of the NWP I feel it my duty to put forward a response of my own. Here ya go.

I write in my work. I write to teach. I write to communicate. I write to think. I write to feel. I write, sometimes, I think, to avoid talking. Mostly I write because, hey, that’s what I do.

Those short sentences are cop-outs, and you deserve more.

I write most often to communicate.

I probably write more words in e-mails each year than I do in prose pieces, and I suspect many others are in the same boat. E-mails communicate, pure and simple.

At its essence, all writing is communicative, even if that communication is just for yourself. But what I’m talking about here is simple communication from one person to one or more others. It’s the “What do you think?” “Here’s what I think,” and “Let’s do this or that” kind of communication.


Less often I write to explain, to teach, to clarify.

Over the years I’ve written many hundreds of individual pieces—books, articles, blogs, white papers, brochures, pamphlets, all kinds of stuff. All of them, as near as I can remember, were aimed at educating readers.

One in particular, though, did more than that. It was my first published article, “Let the Family In,” published in Nursing ’83.That article was educational, yes, but it was also cathartic.

Sometimes I don't write, it writes itself.

Cathartic writing doesn’t happen that often, really. It’s an odd experience. I swear that I didn’t write that article at all, that it just came out. Poured out, really, onto an old IBM Selectric typewriter sitting placidly on a tiny college-type desk in a crowded bedroom.

I remember editing here and there, certainly, but the piece just flowed, as Linda Richman would say, “like buttah.”

Does that explain why that piece was the highest scoring piece of its kind for the journal that year, why it became for more than ten years thereafter the sample the journal editors sent to all prospective writers for that type of column? Nope, it does not.

It’s lovely to think about, I’m proud of it, but really, I didn’t do it. Something inside me did.

And that’s the most wonderful kind of writing, it seems to me, the kind that comes out whether you like it or not. I’ve had that experience a few times in my career, but nowhere near enough.

So maybe, just maybe, I write to have another of those deep cleanses, to have a piece stream from my soul like smoke from a fine cigar.

It’s not the same experience as having saved a life, but man, it’s close.