So here’s today’s keep-your-hand-moving version of why I write:
I write because writing is one of the ways I fall in love with the world and let the world shatter me.
I write to connect my life to yours–like a child talking to their next-door friend through a string stretched between two paper cups.
I write to help myself wake up—and maybe someone else too. I write to share what I think I know and discover how much I don’t.
I write because often I don’t know what I feel or think until it pours out my fingers and onto the page.
I write because writing is a mirror I hold up to life—and then, as in Alice Through the Looking Glass, the story becomes a portal to its own world that I can get lost in.
I write to heighten, refine, and focus my attention. Words can be a telescope, bringing close what is far away—or a microscope, revealing deeper layers of what’s right here.
I write because it’s in my DNA—I’m programmed to do it the way a beaver builds a dam or a cat uses a litter box. I’m the youngest of seven siblings, all of us writers. Our childhood homes had no television, but were filled with books, many of which had belonged to my grandmother when she was a child. Our mother read aloud to us every day until we could read to ourselves.
I write because when I was 9 years old, I sat down at the scarred, slant-topped desk in my bedroom and scribbled out a 9-chapter novel about a horse—knowing, as I did, that there was nothing else I would rather be doing–and then threw it away before anyone else could read it.
I write because I want to leave a trail behind me—even if it’s only there briefly after I pass, like the foam behind a sailboat.
I write because it is a magic carpet by which I enter other lives and other worlds—and I want to bring other people on the ride with me, even if it’s just a flying a few passengers around my own back yard.
I write because I want to be in a conversation with the lineage of writers who have inspired me my whole life, from the first book I ever read on my own (Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne) to the one I read on my Kindle on a cross-country flight last summer (Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver) to the one I was given for my birthday a couple of weeks ago (North Woods by Daniel Mason).
I write because it is an opportunity to research and learn—whether it’s inquiring deeply into my own experience or the experience of others. I write because it’s an excuse to ask people questions—people who are alive now, people who died a thousand years ago, people who I have imagined into being. It’s a magic trick where I get to become someone else, somewhere else.
And how do I want to write?
I want to write as meditation—as a way of waking up to the weird, wild, hilarious, and heartbreaking mystery of being human. I want to write in a way that opens my heart and quiets my mind. I want to write with the curiosity and precision with which I move through a yoga practice—immersing myself in the turn of a bone in its joint, the ache and release of a muscle, the pulse of blood under the skin, as if each detail holds the key to the cosmos.
I want to write like a baker sifting flour and kneading dough, like a sea anemone unfurling its petals into the currents, like a honeybee performing the elaborate dance that guides other bees to the field where the lavender is blooming.
I want to write with the devotion of the young Tibetan monks I saw in the courtyard of the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya, prostrating over and over to the ancient pipal tree –with its spreading branches, its heart-shaped leaves, the gold foil pressed by devotees into its bark–that marks the spot where the Buddha was enlightened.
Now, knowing myself, that is probably not how I will write. Instead I will pace the room, overthink every sentence, begin and delete and begin again over and over, as I just did with this sentence.
I will write like an anxious, disgruntled cat who checks its food bowl every hour and then stares, with great disappointment, at what’s offered there (sometimes recoiling away as if the mound of Fancy Feast could attack it). I will write like the insecure teenager I used to be at a party –constantly replaying in my mind what I just said and cringing, afraid to go wild when I dance because I might look stupid.
But when that happens, I hope I’ll remember to do what I do in meditation when I notice my attention has wandered—notice the trance that I’m in. Relax my senses open. Let go on my exhale, reinspire on my inhale. Reconnect with my intention. And begin again.
People sometimes ask me how writing—an art form based in words—fits with the practices of yoga and meditation, which point us beyond words into direct experience. That’s a koan without a facile answer.
I regularly encounter a poem or a story that unbolts my heart and opens a portal into mystery. I aspire to write like that—and to do it in a spontaneous, wild-mind way where the process itself is a form of meditation.
But I also know that I tend toward a compulsive inner narration that keeps me distracted and lost in thoughts. And that tendency can get amplified when I’m working and reworking a piece of writing (even if that piece of writing is about how writing can wake us up).
Is there a way to write—and share writing– where the process itself shakes me out of my trance, rather than deepens it? It’s an ongoing exploration. Watch this space:)