Why I Write

Silence.

It’s what an actor hears before the curtain goes up, the same emptiness waiting to be filled that I first heard the night I realized I’m a writer—for better or for worse, for richer and for poorer. I had just turned twenty and won a youth scholarship to a writers’ conference on Whidbey Island. The opening day of the conference was my first night on my own, away from home, and I stood in my hotel room, looking over the books on the mantel. And that’s when I heard it—the silence that would be with me for the rest of my life. The same silence in which Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Brontë and so many others had lived and worked. I didn’t know if I was equal to it. I doubted I could survive a silence so total. I wasn’t sure I wanted it. After all, I had thought my future was wide open; I could do anything. Right? I sat in the center of the floor and felt all of it: the fear, the anger, the loneliness, the relief, the joy, and the frustration. But above all, I accepted. Since then, I have heard that mathematicians can demonstrate that events throughout the universe and time follow a single, linear equation; the course of our lives and deaths are unalterable. The mathematicians who discovered this equation all killed themselves. I’m too curious for that. And I love literature so that I must see it out “even to the edge of doom.”[1]

But maybe I am a writer, too, for more selfish reasons. Writers over the centuries have written over scars, as if ink and words were a balm for the “broken places.”[2] Kurt Vonnegut took on the trauma of the Dresden firebombing, which he survived inside a slaughterhouse. Charles Dickens, deeply affected by his brief period working in a factory at the age of ten, often wrote of youth in bleak circumstances, from The Old Curiosity Shop to Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. For decades, Ernest Hemingway explored the impact of war and violence on human relationships and psyches. Since a child, I also have used storytelling as a means for ordering and understanding the grief and brutality of human experience, feeling that “the brush in my hand/[is] a lightning rod to madness.”[3]

I want to take my writing and use it, for the betterment of myself and the lives it may touch. I feel confident that I can achieve this, once my craft is developed, because I know how to listen. In high school, I listened to immigrants and exchange students from Japan, Peru, Spain, and eastern Europe as they argued with each other and America. In college, I listened to the rage of black students, to the rift between Asians and Asian Americans, to the skepticism of international students. And in my job now as a community college tutor, I listen to the stories of teen mothers and drug addicts, of refugees and working-class immigrants, of Christians from the Arab world, of Muslims from Europe, and of students in their 30s and 40s who are all nerves and hope. Listening, I can tell stories that are not about disaffected suburban whites or rural townsfolk or Indian immigrants or Korean immigrants—but about the startling ways in which their lives intersect because I know the voices of all of these. I can write a literature that represents America, not a piece of it. And such a literature can contribute to a unified identity and experience in an increasingly divided nation. I’ve glimpsed this possibility in Sena Jeter Naslund’s Four Spirits and in Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman play Let Me Down Easy. I know it can be done; I also know it takes a lifetime of dedication.


[1] Shakespeare, William. Sonnet 116, line 12.

[2] Hemingway, Ernest.

[3] Fagles, Robert. “The Starry Night.”

 

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