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Why We Write


One of the mistakes I sometimes make when I start working with new clients is to assume that they, like I, want to be famous. That they too have a deep dark hole in their hearts they are trying to fill with adoration from strangers. That they didn’t get enough love in their childhoods. That they live, everyday with the memory of Tina from second grade who was prettier than they were and who one day pointed her pretty little finger at their pink dress on the playground and laughed because it was from the second hand store and had a visible green stain on the hem. I believe they too are haunted by the small, petty injustices of childhood, and clutch each memory close to the heart, and that this is what drives them too to work, ruthlessly through the midnight hours to write a book so good, and so popular, and so well-published that one day Tina from second grade will find herself in a bookstore somewhere and see their picture on the back jacket and recognize their name and say, “Well, I’ll be damned. That’s the little girl I made fun of on the playground” and that she will suddenly feel a tinge of sorrow and despair at how she treated you, and after that a huge flood of jealousy and admiration and regret that she hadn’t tried harder to be your friend.

This is what I used to think drove people to take creative writing workshops. This need to be published and promoted and photographed for the back jacket of a book that Tina would see.

As it turns out, people often take writing workshops for much more altruistic and humble reasons. Some of them are there to skyrocket their way to success, of course. Some of them want to be famous. Some of them, if you pressed really hard, would admit to having their own private Tinas they secretly want, still, after all these years, to show off too, even if at a distance. But others want simpler things. They want to keep their hands busy. They want to tell stories their children will enjoy. They want a group of friends to talk with on a Tuesday evening. Some of them are very young and they want to be heard. Some of them are very old and don’t want to be forgotten.

Once, when I was very young, I went to a poetry reading at a private home in San Jose. It was a lovely spring afternoon in a blossoming garden on the quieter end of town. A group of twenty or so poets had gathered to sit in plastic folding chairs and drink chardonnay and lemonade and listen to the key note poet stand up in her bright floral dress and read some poems. I cannot remember who the poet was but I remember the garden and the lemonade, and how afterwards I was left to myself, milling about among all of these older poets I really didn’t know, and I was able to eavesdrop on a few private conversations while standing by the refreshment table, pretending to pour wine.  I remember one woman turning to another and asking,

“So how did you get into writing?”

It was such a pretty afternoon. The sun was lighting up all of the purple and pink flowers in the garden. Women stood side by side in light colored dresses with hats flopping over their brows. A few plastic tables were set up, side by side with books displayed prominently and the author signing copies. A single stray blade of grass had made its way onto the patio, brightening up an otherwise perfect cleanliness.

The first woman turned to the second and said, “I was walking in a park one day with my grandchildren. We had just finished a picnic and I was walking a little farther behind everyone else, carrying the basket. It was a warm afternoon, like this, and there were pink flowers all over the lawn, and a path where the trees formed a perfect frame of shade. I looked at the lawn and the flowers and then I heard a bird calling from far ahead of us and looked up, and saw suddenly my two granddaughters were far ahead of me walking into the frame of the trees, their pink dresses turning to shadows before me. The sun splicing the day into darkness and light, and a row of evergreens bowing their heads in the shade. Then one of them stopped and turned around and called ‘come follow us grandma’ and I thought, ‘I want to remember this moment.’ And that’s how I started writing again after so many years.”

That is, to this day, one of my favorite justifications of writing I have ever heard. “I want to remember this moment.”

I used to think writing was motivated by a desire for fame, but really I think it is motivated by a healthy respect for and fear of the passage of time. It is motivated by an awareness of our own mortality, by the sense that this life is not permanent and neither are we, so we better write some of this down before it gets lost in the sand.


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