October 20th has been enthusiastically and fondly called a National Day on Writing. I learned about this a few days ago when I started seeing the hashtag #whyiwrite appear in my twitter feed, and it got me thinking about the many possible responses to that implied question. A search for the hashtag yielded a steady stream of earnest, humorous, reflective, inspired, and inspiring results. Here are a few of my favorites:

neilhimself Neil Gaiman
Because I can lie beautiful true things into existence, & let people escape from inside their own heads & see through other eyes. #whyIwrite

jenniferweiner Jennifer Weiner
Because I love it. Because I don’t have a choice. Because it makes my readers happy. And because it pisses off the literati. #whyiwrite

MaryAnnReilly Mary Ann Reilly
Time comes into it. Say it. Say it. The universe is made of stories, not of atoms. — muriel rukeyser #Whyiwrite

LimestoneKush Matthew Maize
Therapy #whyiwrite

MrFlynnWave Rob Flynn
Why I write? Beats Algebra. #whyiwrite

kjda kjda
Because otherwise I will never know anything. #whyiwrite

neilhimself Neil Gaiman
Also it’s really fun. #whyIwrite

These responses turned my thoughts, once again, to the meditation course where writing was not allowed. My roommate, with whom I finally had a conversation after spending ten days together in silence, shared her friend’s failed Vipassana experience: he endured the silence and the stillness for 8 days before leaving. Among the reasons he cited for his early departure was an exchange he overheard between a fellow meditator and the assistant teacher in which the former requested permission from the latter to write down an idea he described as “great” and was apparently told that there were no “great” ideas.

Having spent twenty days of my life in utter silence and struggled with this same tension — namely, the fear of forever losing an idea — I understand both perspectives: the feeling of urgency when the “perfect” idea blossoms into coherent form as well as the perception that such moments are constant and fleeting and future moments of inspired prose need not necessarily suffer for the many we might miss in the present. And when people ask me to describe the hardest part of “being silent,” it is the spirit of the tweets above that come to mind — resisting the natural urge to document a precious few of the thousands or millions of electrical impulses that flutter across and in between the various parts of our grey matter and that we are cognizant of in the form of images, sensations, recognitions, glimpses, memories, inspiration, meanings, questions, and more.

In an earlier post, I alluded to the frequent bouts of paralysis that threaten to settle in and get cozy in the form of the dreaded writers block. It seems that these blocks tend to rear their ugly heads at moments of writing insecurity, as in “What could I possibly say that someone has said more eloquently, more thoughtfully, with better data or drawing on more interesting anecdotes?”  For me, these moments occur when I encounter writing that moves me in inexplicable and almost haunting ways — such as the patient writing of three writers who are in heavy rotation on my virtual bookshelf at the moment: WG Sebald, Andre Aciman, and Teju Cole. I’m thinking through a separate post about these three authors — all men, born outside of the US, whose use of the English language is captivating, illuminating, and often revelatory — but I name them here in the spirit of #whyiwrite to note that observing others’ artful treatment of words can also be freeing, almost an invitation to join their chorus of observations – large and small, shared and unique, lived and imagined – from our own horizons and vantage points. #whyiwrite

Why do you write?

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