Why do we write?

It's January, it's about -100 degrees outside in Toronto, and the kids are back in school. The house is quiet. As I type this, the printer to my right is spewing page upon page of editorial notes for my second novel, the still-untitled sequel to Still Mine. So it begins, part two of the epic journey that is writing a novel. The hands-dirty editing part. My editor has read it. She has her thoughts. We are both excited. But mixed in with my excitement is always that huge pile of reticence, of self-doubt. Writing is a tough and lonely gig. It often leaves me raw, disconcerted. Remind me... why do I do it?

Cue the serendipity: This morning, as I was browsing old files on my computer in search of a long-lost letter, I came across something I wrote fourteen years ago while in teacher's college at the University of Toronto. I was studying to be an English teacher, and as part of this study, our incredible professor had us reflect on our own lives as readers, writers, talkers. In 2003, I was at the very beginning of two career paths - teacher and writer - paths that would weave over and under each other for the decade to follow, as I imagine they will continue to do. Funny how what I wrote back then about my life as a writer rings incredibly true to me today; it acts as a reminder of why I do this, of how lucky I am to be doing it. Funny too that I'd come across it right when I needed to read something of the very sort. I'll share it with you in case it might offer you something too. 

My Life as a Writer (2003)

Words are everything to me. They can reduce me to tears in any form: a letter, a poem, a novel, a story, an essay, a song. I believe I could fall in love in the balance of a single sentence. I probably have already, and I likely will again.

When I was young, I kept a journal, but mostly I wrote letters. I had pen pals, and I wrote to faraway relatives and friends. At summer camp, I wrote at least one letter a day. I have a large box with every letter or note I’ve ever received tucked inside. Collectively, these letters build a remarkable monument to my past. The pile also includes letters I’ve written and never sent. I’ve meditated a lot about unsent letters, about how sending them might have shifted my course. On August 9, 1999, I wrote this in my diary:

“All the letters I will never send… how much could they change my life? A letter leads to a phone call, which leads to a meeting, which leads to said things that would have stayed unsaid without the letter. I have many letters, some unfinished and some addressed and stamped, that I never sent. Do I always make the right choice? That’s a stupid question, because there’s no way to know. I’m trying more and more not to live that way, not to focus on what might have been. But unsent letters are so grey, so unknown. I can remind myself that there was probably a good reason why I didn’t send it, that at some point a clearer mind stepped in and stopped me. But then again, if the words weren’t speaking a truth deserving to be read, then why did I write them in the first place?”

Only recently have I fancied myself a writer beyond journals and letters. Last summer, I wrote an essay about my grandmother that was published in a national newspaper. A few months later, my grandma fell ill, and I travelled to PEI to be with her when she died. Everyone I saw mentioned the essay, some even quoted entire sentences back to me as we mingled with juice and cake after the funeral. What a strange thing it is, to write about a person and a place so beloved, and then to have the words stretch out well beyond me to countless others. It was my first experience as a published writer, and my reaction was mixed. In one sense, I felt exposed, as though I’d handed over a delicate part of myself for the world to jostle. The limelight, however dim, was disconcerting to me. But in another sense, I felt happy that people had taken my point, that I’d carved a hole through which anyone could glimpse something so dear to me.

So, I plow forward, taking measures to assure that I’m writing on a regular basis. I am taking courses and cutting out small sections of each day to sit down and write. The process can be agonizing, but it can also be beautiful. And the further I go, the more I recognize that I need to be doing it.

I have told my students that writing is talking with the benefit of time. We write what we want to say, but with the chance to mull it over, to pick and choose our words at whatever pace suits us. I have spent hours on a single sentence, and written pages and pages in minutes. Writing is unconstrained by time. For that, I cherish it.