An Act of Love
Soon (too soon), I’ll be teaching English 101. It’s a class that nobody chooses to take; one that, for some, connotes busy-work at best and draconian torture at worst. As an undergraduate student, I did everything in my power to dodge the required composition course. I went straight to the Dean with my protest (to which she eventually yielded). For years now, one of my favorite quotes on writing has been this, from William Zinsser, “Like most writers, I don’t like to write. I like to have written.” So, I can relate.
Another of my favorite quotes on writing (well, storytelling) is less cynical:
The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.
– Badger, in Barry Lopez’ Crow and Weasel
Clearly, I believe that writing is important. I do it here on this blog and in several other venues, too. Experiences with scholarly writing, creative writing, and grant writing have all brought me closer to the things I believe in and care about, because they have allowed me to reflect on those things, to flesh them out in words, and to share them with others.
As I prepare to sell the act of writing to students whose prior experiences may have led them to believe that writing is necessarily boring, painful, or even impossible, I’ve found it helpful to revisit my own reasons for writing. The excerpt below comes from a response piece I wrote many years ago, after Terry Tempest Williams’, “A Letter to Deb Clow,” moved me to tears. I read TTW’s letter of the same form as I was first falling in love with the Southwest. I was just beginning to develop an awareness of the sway that Place holds over me. I was just becoming aware, too, of the ecological and social consequences of carrying on with The Way Things Are.
I write because sometimes my voice is small and sometimes I stutter. I write because there is so much to reach out to and touch. I write for laughter. I write for suffering. I write because, no matter what, the sun always rises. I write because the desert dries out the tongue. I write because half of all people live in cities, and many of those people will never see a pygmy owl, or a mountain lion, or a place without cars. I write because seventypercent of people in this country live in cities. I write because I don’t want to be one of them. … I write because I believe in love. I write because I have never seen the glaciers beside which my mother grew up. I write for my father, and his father, too. … I write because I would be ashamed if I didn’t. I write to give thanks. I write to offer blessing. I write because I want all the right kinds of wrinkles. I write because, someday, I want a child.
… I write because I know what it is like to lie on a hillside in the rain and to feel the earth disappear, erode, and disintegrate. I write because the Colorado, and others, are being held hostage. I write because my drinking water is unsafe. I write because I do not know where my food comes from. I write because comfort and convenience are dangerous. … I write because writing is a kind of medicine that I know is strong. I write because there are pelicans that migrate across the desert and a hummingbird at Thumb Butte that does not flee when I approach its nest. I write because her tiny eyes have looked into my own. I write because that is how I pray. I write because that is how I come home.
My letter is much clumsier than TTW’s. With the passage of time, it’s become kind of embarrassing, too. But as I will remind my students over and over again, writing is nothing if not a process. We only get better at it by doing it. And when we do write, however graceful or clumsy our execution, we create opportunities to step inside of our own passions and to tell the stories that matter.