The Why: In her essay “Why I Write,” Terry Tempest Williams lays out a litany of reasons to sit down and participate in the wondrous and maddening activity of writing. What resounds loudest and clearest for me is that Williams writes to meet her ghosts, to become less fearful of death, to confront that which she does not know, which she refers to as creating a path in the wilderness. I’ve spent a lot of time in real physical wildernesses, backpacking the Rockies, rafting through the Grand Canyon, floating in the haunted world a hundred feet down in the sea. Living in the middle of a large city now, and surrounded by humans of every age and race and social strata, I still try to write that path through the wilds, though it is not the one with giant trees or sleek barracuda or sheer walls of bright angel shale and kaibab limestone.
The city, with its dearth of natural grandeur, brings me face to face with ordinary people like and unlike myself, each of us rambling through our own interior wilderness. It is to those itinerant hearts that I write. I write—and read—to experience worlds and people that might otherwise be alien to me, and I don’t mean because they are of a different race or gender. I’ve come to realize that any middle-aged, white, American-born and -bred woman is, at the level of her private wilderness, as alien to me as the twenty-two-year-old immigrant son of the bodega owner a block from my house.
But the vast and seemingly impassable spaces between us become more bridgeable by the imagining of lives different from my own. While my physical clan is a large network of Kentucky relations, I also claim a community of characters, both real and imagined. Catholic education aside, the closest I’ve come to any sort of religious experience has invariably arisen through encounters with literature and art. Pieter Brueghel’s and Kathe Kollwitz’s peasants in celebration or grief or work or struggle, kids dealing with alcoholic relatives in Sherman Alexie’s fiction or Mary Karr‘s memoirs, Edgar Degas’s and Mary Cassatt’s prostitutes and dancers, even Beowulf’s Grendel in John Gardner’s hands—all have been moments of connection for me. I can’t remember not wanting to be part of that connection, not wanting to make art.
I once heard Marilynne Robinson say that fiction is an “exercise in the capacity for imaginative love,” and I remember feeling a current run through me. Robinson was talking not just about writing fiction, but reading it too. Reading stories and novels certainly gives my empathy muscles a workout. When I write, I’m not thinking about shoring up our shared humanity, nothing so grand as reminding humankind of the value of compassion. Understanding why I’m pulled to this work—what makes me need to repeatedly shove my feet into the shoes of my imagined beings—seems less important than the repeated, even dogged, doing of it. Participation in the flow of making is what sustains me, whether I’m drifting or swimming like a maniac. I can even get through days that feel like drowning, knowing I’m part of it.
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