why write?


AWP was amazing and exhausting. When D and the girls picked me up at the airport Saturday night, I squeezed myself in back between Stella and Zoë, and I gave Stella a huge hug, kissing her repeatedly. She went on and on with “Mama, I missed you,” and “I love you,” and “I’m so glad you’re back,” and she happily rattled off the details of her day. But little Zoë refused to look at me, even after I practically gobbled her up. She turned her head to the window, and would not be wooed. We were almost home before I convinced her to smile at me. But as soon as we were inside, she was pulling at my shirt and nursing greedily, as if she had been starving (which she wasn’t). And she nursed on and off all day Sunday and yesterday. (As if she wanted to get her fill before I disappeared again.) Poor thing. But maybe she’s nursing continually during the day because I’m not nursing her at night anymore! D did it! She’s sleeping in her crib ALL NIGHT LONG! On Saturday night, she cried out a few times, but she fell back to sleep on her own, and the last two nights she cried out only once. Hopefully soon she won’t cry out at all, and Stella can move back into her bed. (She’s currently sleeping with us, which is a little tight.)

But even though it was difficult to leave my kids, and especially my nursing eleven-month old, I’m so glad I went to the conference. I finally met some of my virtual friends, like the amazing Susan Ito (whose writing I’ve discussed here), and all of the talented and wonderful Literary Mama folks. I went to their reading Friday night, and it was so lovely to finally hear their voices! They rock!

It’s incredible to be able to be in the same space with so many of my literary heroes! I accosted Scott Russell Sanders in the book fair on Friday, and he was even more gracious and lovely than I expected. Whenever I meet one of my heroes, I always worry that I’ll act like an excited puppy, and that in my effusiveness, it will seem like I just peed on their legs. But Scott Russell Sanders took my admiration in stride, and we talked about what he read at the Loft Mentor Series reading and about the Parents as Writers panel. He said how much he wished he could have been a part of that discussion, and he talked about how having children was one of the things that made him move from writing fiction to writing essays. Being a father heightened his need to make sense of the world, to question what kind of world we were leaving for our kids. And becoming a father made him question why he wrote. (I’m paraphrasing badly here.)

This question—why write?—came up again and again over the weekend, from different people in different forms. Some people write to try to change the world. To change a perspective. To expose our violent history of racism. To help us rethink war.

I’m thinking of Wang Ping’s amazing poem “Dust Angels,” which is about migrant workers in China who only last a year or two in the factories that make jewelry because the dust from metal and stones poisons their lungs. I’m thinking of Shari MacDonald Strong’s essay about raising sons in a time of war in The Maternal is Political. I’m thinking of Eula Biss’ essay “Time and Distance Overcome,” from her new collection, Notes from No Man’s Land, which won the 2008 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. You can read an excerpt of this essay at Harper’s, but I wish everyone could hear Biss read it aloud. I sat among hundreds of people Friday afternoon, and I felt as if I was being kicked repeatedly. I felt as if I would vomit. She’s that good.

I write to discover what I know. I write to survive. I write to make sense of the world around me. And always, I hope that something I have written will help someone, even if it is only one person.

A few weeks ago I asked why you blogged, and now I want to know why you write. Are the reasons the same? I’d love to hear what drives you to your computer or to the coffee shop with a pad of paper and a pen. Why do you write?


  1. Thanks so much for the update and all the writer recommendations that I am going to check out, pronto! Why do I write? Partly because I am driven to it by some unknown force. Partly because words have always held me captive, sustaining me and thrilling me. Partly because I suppose I’m pretty good at it and that is something!

  2. I write because it’s how I make sense of things around me and it’s something I’ve done innately, since the time I could hold a pen and actually write a letter.

    I write because I love to play with words and I feel like it’s a way to be heard.

    I don’t write because of fear and clingy toddlers, runny noses or the quiet elephant in the room, that is, that no one wants to hear what I have to say.

  3. Hey Kate– I used to write and need to start again because my head gets too full– I write because if I don’t, I can’t sleep. My mind has too many thoughts to process all at once- sometimes I feel all the letters and words and sentences will ooze out of my ear– really. I write because I want to leave a legacy for my children that is more than pictures and memories– because, most often, when the pen hits the paper, I feel light and heavy at the same time- and somewhere in between, I feel free.

  4. I stopped writing for ten years and started again because I feel called to do so and because reading and writing help me to feel connected to others. When I was single and in my twenties, I wrote all the time and never thought about it–it was just something I did. Now that I am a 40 year old mama, I struggle with guilt–am I “allowed” to do this, can I be so selfish as to ask my family to be quiet (or elsewhere) so I can focus on it, is it really “work”? This internal drama seems really pointless since I do feel called–it’s what I most want to do right now and I find myself doing it over my own objections. If I could just surrender to it I’d probably have a lot more fun.

  5. I’m hearing from so many about this conference—it seemed to affect and stir so many thoughts. Thank you for this post, for this honest assessment. And for insights into authors I’ve both reviewed and am just stumbling across now.

  6. Thank you! Whenever I hear or read about why other people write, I’m always more excited to get back to my own writing!

  7. I’m a little jealous of your AWP experience, but I enjoyed reading about it. Like you, I write to make sense of the world. I also write to help myself understand others. For example, when I’m writing from the point of view of a disabled child, it helps me understand my daughter better. At the best of times, I’m writing to give a voice to the voiceless, and to add empathy to the world

  8. kate, miranda at cc brought attention to this post. it’s a good one. good to take time out to consider why you write.

    i write,because what else is there? i’ve always done it, i often took it for granted in other pursuits, but when it comes down to it nothing but raising my children and writing gives me a sense of purpose and connection to world as writing does.

    would love to know how you got your 11mo nurser into the crib and sleeping all night. my 10.5 mo is a long way from that!

  9. I write for myself but I bog for myself and the rest of the world. When I blog the immediacy of the reader is ever present but when I JUST WRITE well, I just write.

  10. I write because when I was twelve and anorexic my father sat on the edge of my bed on a spring evening that smelled like onion grass and cried one tear he wiped with his thumb. Because when I was twenty-two I ran away with a backpack to Europe and my mom snuck up on me, found me at the gate waiting for the plane, and ran her finger up my spine the way she does to say hello only then to fare me well and I cried clear across the Atlantic not really caring what the man in a blue shirt next to me thought. (He, too, had something in his throat, it seemed—unshed tears?) I write because I love my mom and dad, I mean love them. So much I might pop.

    I write to keep from popping. Or to pop, depending how you look at it.

    The scritch-scratch of a pen, the smell of a diary. I used to buy spiral notebooks, one after another, for years and years, writing in them on the subway at my kitchen table late at night or in the teal chair before dawn when I couldn’t sleep but then I turned forty and bought a red leather diary from Barnes and Noble for fifty dollars with a gift card and now I can’t stop buying these diaries that smell like new shoes. I breathe them into my soul as the pen scritch-scratches and I fill five hundred pages in less than a year. They have a ribbon, these grown-up diaries, to mark your place, a shiny ribbon that matches the cover, red, brown, blue.

    I write to mark my place.

  11. Kate, so great to hear about your AWP experience and giving me the vision of you peeing on Mr. Sanders leg:-) Why write? I have been writing since I was nine years old and I’m sure I’ve had various reasons for doing so over the last 20 some years, but whatever my motivation, I’ve always felt compelled to do it. It is another way of expression and being for me, so integral that it’s almost an involuntary reflex.

  12. These are so lovely, friends. Thank you for sharing a little bit of what motivates you to get words on the page.

  13. Why do I write? This is like asking me what my novel is about. I can’t come up with a comprehensive answer. Strange.

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