Why do you write?
I was sitting in the grass on Tuesday afternoon, the inchworms settling happily onto my keyboard for upwards of three hours (my face is only slightly burned. hallelujah for North Carolina springtime!). The result of that afternoon: one poem, the story of the past three years of my life. But why do I write? I was faced with this question several hours later at a poetry reading in the Rare Book Room of the Davidson library, when I recited the poem I had just written. Last night, I performed it memorized before a room full of Davidson students. In the jittery moments before I stepped onstage, I reexamined my motivations. Why do I write, and more importantly, why would I share it?
Many of us write because it is a pragmatic application of our human capabilities. It is an evolutionary adaptation, the linguistic anthropologists tell us; we write to express our innermost thoughts and feelings in order to satisfy an unmet need – we learned to communicate about food, shelter, sex. But that doesn’t explain everything. In a world where my basic biological needs are met far and beyond any minimum for survival purposes, why do I write?
In the past few years, especially the past three months, I have learned that our writings – our stories – are sacred. The words that we ascribe to an inner experience possess a power that when voiced, shape us in a reciprocal motion. I become what I write, and I write to inform what I am becoming. As my friend Andrew always reminds me, we are our stories, and our stories shape who we are.
Take my experience in El Salvador as an example. Once, we asked the leader of the organization CRISPAZ why he works for solidarity. He told us the story of his father – how he left a top position with the National Guard to join the civilians’ movement. In the words of our campus chaplain, Rob reflected,
“At times, [Francisco’s story] reminded me, the lives and choices of fathers and others in one’s family can deeply and lastingly shape the trajectory of one’s own life. I think of how that has been the case in my own life, how my father’s story, and my mother and sister Lynn’s as well, have shaped who I am, what I believe is possible and authentic in this world and my deepest convictions about God.
It all reminds me that our lives are not just our own. The ripples reach far out to the lives of others, and our stewardship of our experiences – the painful, the frightening, the beautiful, the awe-inspiring – matter to ourselves, certainly, but also to others, to the world, and to our Creator who loves us and all of this amazing, fathomless creation.”
Stories are sacred because they ascribe a personal voice to the living journey that we all share. Our particularities, our unique stories, are the only lens through which we can see the ultimate reality. I write because I am hungry to connect to that ultimate reality. I believe we have each been given a hunger to speak truth to the injustices of this world, to voice our utmost gratitude for existence, to speak love into the heart of another, to allow words to embody the experiences that unite us.
I think to the letter I received from my best friend Rahael this week, a bond formed by sharing stories many times during our time at Davidson. Her words on the back of two photos changed who I am because they made me taste love, an intangible concept, in the embodied story of our friendship.
Why do I write? The more that I reflect upon the power of stories, the more I realize the emptiness of words like “love,” “God,” “suffering,” “humanity.” These are linguistic schemas we use to describe our experiences of reality. And in reality, though we only catch glimpses of these concepts, we combine them to form a heap of a single word. The fullness is in these moments, not in the words themselves. I write to explore universal notions through particular experiences. I write because poetry forces me to unmask the conventional understanding of my life by juxtaposing a firefly with the experience of death. Writing opens my eyes to the naked moment, my heartbeat, the inchworms, the rain drops, as supreme truths.
I write because I fear that we have lost the ability to tell our stories from the heart. I write because our words, and therefore our souls, are being commercialized. Our stories are our tweets, our text messages, our headlines, our cable bills, our billboards. What about our myths? What about prophecies? What about firsthand testimonies, love letters, poetry, family owned recipes?
I write because I the words will eat me if I don’t voice them. I write because I want us all to have a voice to our sacred truths. I write because it forces me to embody particularity: the gateway to a deepened compassion. I write because I want us all to be fed with this universal connection. I write because God wakes me up in my dreams with stirring uncertainties. I write because we keep killing each other. I write to empty myself, to give away a piece of my heart in the smallest way that I can. I write because my veins do not end in me, but in the oneness of humanity.
In the words of Roque Dalton, a Latin American poet:
“Like you I love love, life, the sweet smell of things, the sky- blue landscape of January days.
And my blood boils up and I laugh through eyes that have known the buds of tears. I believe the world is beautiful and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.
And that my veins don’t end in me but in the unanimous blood of those who struggle for life, love, little things, landscape and bread, the poetry of everyone.”