There are probably as many reasons for writing as there are writers. For some of us, the events of our lives, whether tragic or blessed, or both, demand to be told. For others, our experience of nature, or the texture and minutiae of everyday life is so compelling we have to put it into words. Or we have the story telling bug. Or we are obsessed with something, or someone.
I just finished the second year of a three-year MFA program at the University of New Mexico and have some time to reflect on my motivations as I prepare to complete my manuscript in what will probably be a mad rush. Those motivations can be easy to lose sight of, despite, or even, maybe, as a result of, being surrounded by other writers and being engaged in writing related activities most of the time.
I’ve undoubtedly learned a lot in my first two years despite doing my fair share of kicking and screaming along the way. I’ve become a better writer, and I understand what it takes to make a life out of writing (not a romantic ideal). But am I a happier writer? For many people that’s not even a reasonable or relevant question. Who writes to be happy? I’ve heard many successful writers insist that writing makes them very unhappy, that the actual process of writing is painful and is only justified by what comes after (publication, accolades, etc.).
But for me it is an important and relevant question. For me writing is an end in and of itself. And I was reminded of that earlier this summer when I finally opened the copy someone had given me of Natalie Goldberg’s classic Writing Down the Bones.
Most of Goldberg’s craft advice (use details) and suggestions for writing exercises (write about your first memory) are pretty banal and would certainly be old news to anyone in an MFA but it is her approach to writing as a practice, which she likens to Zen meditation, that aroused my interest and renewed my intrinsic motivation for writing daily. As someone who has studied and practiced meditation on and off for years, and who has often tried to make time for both meditative practice and writing, usually to the detriment of both, it was refreshing to read her roshi’s (Zen teacher’s) question to her:
“Why do you come to sit meditation? Why don’t you make writing your practice? If you go deep enough in writing, it will take you everyplace.”
I needed that. It reminded me of why I began to write in earnest in the first place, which was my same reason for practicing meditation: to see clearly, to experience deeply. Most of the poetry that I like comes from this place of seeing clearly and precisely rendering experience. The act of bringing one’s focused attention to life, to illuminate and elevate the ordinary. And in our fragmented, distracted world, I find it to be a necessary corrective.
Goldberg encourages writing as a practice, writing freely, whatever comes, without regard to outcome, for a given number of pages or amount of time. She fills up entire notebooks in this way. And she also writes and publishes polished work. These are two different, though not entirely distinct phases of writing. And now I do both most days. For me it’s a return to the innocent beginnings of my writing practice, journaling with a cup of coffee on cool San Francisco mornings, jotting down observations on the Chinatown bus on the way to work, writing down my dreams alongside ideas for stories and poems, trying to make sense of my life and finding moments of inspiration.
Admittedly, generating ideas and writing first drafts have always been my favorite parts of writing. Revision requires a concerted effort. Submitting for publication is a quagmire. But I need the innocence and freedom of writing as a practice. Everything else is good and has its place too, but for me it’s icing on the cake.