Everywhere you turn this time of year you find a top this-or-that list: books, movies, political disasters.
I wasn’t thinking about lists or the new year when I sat down a few days ago for my morning writing session. What emerged was a contemplation, in the form of a list, of why I pursue the solitary, frustrating, and often painful occupation of writing. It’s not the first time I’ve explored this topic.
In the spirit of end-of-year lists, I share my reasons here. There are twelve—perfect for matching up one with each month of the new year. Maybe some of them will feel familiar, whether you are a writer or not.
- … to connect the self of yesterday with the self of tomorrow, because, despite my commitment to living in the moment, I feel a need to inhabit the past and the future.
- … to unravel the mystery of being human. Some people look inward—to synapses or hormones or the circulatory system—to understand our essence. I study exteriors: the way a friend’s face shifts when he or she recognizes you; the way a baby turns aside when overstimulated; the way a few inches between your hand and your beloved’s can feel like a continent. I reach the interior through observation of the surface.
- … to wrestle the demons I’ve been bequeathed by circumstance (neurology? genetics? upbringing?). I face them, undress them, slay them.
- … to dream myself to a place I’ve never been. An imagined Shangri-La, an ordinary life I’ve never lived, a world free of suffering.
- … to make myself laugh. And, sometimes, to make others laugh.
- … to burrow deeper into my own head but also to free myself from the confines of my skull, to find peace, however momentary, in the melody and rhythm of language, the satisfaction of consonants and vowels on the tongue and in the throat. I could have been a singer or a preacher but I chose poetry.
- … to hold on, to remember, when my memory fails. Names and places, scenes and scenarios, loves and hates wash away into the river of the past. The words are pins, anchors, sign posts. “You were here,” they say. “You felt this. You saw this. You loved him.”
- … to let go of grief, of grudges, of the toxic tincture of shame. Put it down, put it out there—these are phrases we use to urge people to speak their minds but they have another meaning. Put down your burden. Put your struggle out with the trash.
- … to motivate myself, and sometimes others. I write sentences that begin with a commanding verb: Finish the editing. Wash the clothes. Fill out the application. Go to the bank. I fill notebook after notebook with these reminders, each preceded by a small square awaiting the check mark that indicates finishing the task. This is writing, too, though by the part of myself that wants only to hurtle forward without contemplating the moment or savoring the past.
- … to reach the part of myself that has no words, that only exists and feels, that was there before I had words and will be there when I finally lose them. I write to discover if she is my true self or merely one of many. I barely know how to communicate with her, since she has no language.
- … to achieve immortality. I derive modest comfort from the thought—clichéd though it may be—that my words will live on after I die.
- … to connect with others. Because really, what else is there?
“To entertain” does not appear in my list. I am not that kind of writer. But I can’t be other than I am, nor can I ply my craft for reasons other than ones that resonate for me.
May your new year be filled with what makes your life meaningful and the sound of your true voice.
Hungry for more top lists? May I suggest:
- NPR’s Book Concierge app
- New York Times 25 Top Books of 2016
- Amazon 2016 Bestsellers
- Fresh Air – Top 12 Films of 2016
- Fresh Air – Best TV of 2016