Why Bother Writing

Why bother writing? Hasn’t it all been said before? What’s the point of putting my story on paper?

 One of my students asked this series of questions during the last session of Write From the Bottom of Your Mind. It was the second week of class and I wanted to know where my students were stuck, or if they had any questions about practice. I enjoy this part of class when individual questions open up broader issues of writing and practice that benefit everyone. I’m good at it.  But the “why bother” question came late in the evening. We were running out of time, and I was running out of steam. I promised to address it in another session.

 The following week Natalie visited our class via Face Time, and the same student asked the same question: Why bother when it’s all been written before? Off the hook, I thought. Natalie can answer the big, bad question As you would expect, she was inspiring.

 “It’s true,” Natalie said. “Everything has been said, but no one else has lived your life. No one else can say what it’s like to be you.” We had our chairs huddled around the computer, and I noticed a lot of heads nodding in agreement. It was a good answer. 

 Later, when we were debriefing, I expanded on Natalie’s point, sharing my belief that it is the job of the writer to tell what it is like to be a human being at a particular moment and place in time. And then we dropped it and moved on with the rest of our class. I never got back to the nagging sensation that we hadn’t fully answered the question, "why bother," because we hadn’t addressed what was underneath it.

 Last weekend, at my daughter’s urging, I read the YA novel, The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. I rarely read YA books, such is my snobbery, but I didn’t want to disappoint her. After the first chapter, I was hooked, and in the end, I was totally slayed. The book left me weeping on the living room floor.

 John Green tells the story of two teenagers with cancer. August and Hazel meet in a cancer support group, fall in love, and together ask big questions about the meaning of their short lives. They discuss the predicament of the dead at length and repeatedly ask who remembers them. The boy, a former basketball player who had his leg amputated, is especially concerned about leaving the world without a legacy. His biggest fear is oblivion. Not death, but that the world should continue as if he never existed. When Hazel and Augustus discuss the universe, they note that it continues without interest in their individual lives, seems to take no notice of them at all.

 Late in the book, after Augustus is gone, Hazel has the realization that it isn’t the job of the universe to pay attention to her, but it is her job to pay attention to the universe. “I was thinking about the universe wanting to be noticed,” she says, “and how I had to notice it as best I could. I felt that I owed a debt to the universe that only my attention could repay.” Later, when she’s on a picnic with her parents, she elaborates. “I was just trying to notice everything: the light on the Ruins, this little kid who could barely walk discovering a stick at the corner of the playground, my indefatigable mother zigzagging mustard across her turkey sandwich, my dad patting his handheld in his pocket and resisting the urge to check it, a guy throwing a Frisbee that his dog kept running under and catching and returning to him.” 

 This was the answer to the “why bother” question and what I believe was underneath it. What if our work is insignificant? What if it isn’t unique enough to warrant attention? It’s natural to want to write something unique. It's natural to want our work to be noticed. But the real satisfaction comes from the writing and from paying attention. That is the value of the writing life, to be awake in this world, to slow down enough to notice the peeling paint on an old picnic bench, the toddler tripping over his shoes, the way your mother squints when she laughs at your jokes, the way your father hunches over the stove when he's stirring a pot of soup. In a short life, it is enough and maybe all we have. 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Many of you have asked about dates for spring classes. I’ve provided a full schedule on the workshop page. Fuller course descriptions to follow.

 FYI, I am hard at work on a new website with expanded content that I am super excited to share. I’ll also offer a more efficient registration process. In the meantime, if you’re interested in signing up for any of my spring classes, send me a message and I’ll send the old registration form. We’ll help the postal service stay in business for a few more months.

 Whatever holidays you celebrate – or don’t – I wish you a good December, and I look forward to connecting in the New Year.

My best to each of you, 




(C) 2011 Saundra Goldman