Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Why I Write

Writing is how I process life, how I savor its moments, and how I draw from the feelings and experiences we all share: love, pain, beauty, and friendship. My relationship with writing has changed and continues to change as I wend my way through life, but that’s what it always has been about. It’s an effort to extract, distill, and capture the things that are meaningful and the things that connect me to the world, the world to me, and all of us together. I think that’s what we are all trying to do. For me, putting it down on paper brings it into sharper focus.

I started writing when I was 12. This first attempt was short-lived. Someone – I forget who it was - gave me a diary, and I thought I should give writing a shot. That was, after all, the point of having a diary, right? I didn’t get very far. I ended up with just one prosaic entry of the “Dear Diary” variety. I didn’t yet have much to say.

Then, in high school, I fell in love. Exploding with yearning and grappling with feelings I hadn’t experienced before, I turned to poetry as an outlet. I still have the worn green spiral notebook with every poem that I wrote. Despite the fact that the great majority of my high school poems are not very good, for me they are epic simply because they are windows into my high school mind:

I sit here drunk and smelling/of her/I feel her lips pressed against mine/still/I sit here quiet and cold/warm because she’s with me/cold because she’s gone

Through my early poetry attempts, I learned that writing could be a container in which to pour my overflowing emotions, a vehicle to try to capture and mark new and powerful feelings, a way to try to understand myself in the context of the world.

In college and then after, my writing turned to a sort of personal travel journalism. I diligently cataloged my trip to Israel during my freshman year and two backpacking adventures through Europe, one in the summer after college and the other two years later before law school. These trips were my first tastes of the bigness of life - and I wanted to savor every bit. My journals were my attempt to stitch together the smells, tastes, and adventures with the rich characters I met along the way:

In Prague: “The skies opened up and it poured – thunder, lightning, and drenching rain. Dan was our leader, map in hand, sniffing a scent, darting under overhangs until he found the restaurant. This guy was super boy-scout man, adding to the legend of Danforth the tracker. We walked downstairs, thru dark corridors. The place was like a cave. Each table had pulley lamps hanging low.”

In Brugges, Belgium: “We all sat and drank beers. At midnite, the group of us went for a walk amongst the canals. It was late, but I still had all this weird energy. We ended up sitting by the windmills near this clicking traffic light on a canal a block from Bauhaus, talking about religion, education, music, the United States, New Zealand, politics, and swapping stories from our travels and college days.

More recently, when I lived abroad in Japan with my wife and two kids, I again took up the travel journalism, this time via a blog that – when we printed it out – had mushroomed to the size of two hardcover coffee table books. I wrote almost every day; it made me think about where I was and what I was doing, about what mattered, what was funny, what was touching, what was the crux of our life experience. Now, “The Blog” serves as my memory of our time abroad, my impressions and thoughts safely tucked inside the digital amber. Reading my entries six years later is like plugging into The Matrix, sucked backwards in time and space, senses rekindled, thoughts retraced, the thrill of new friendships and of exploring new places brought back again. Anais Nin said, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” It’s like that. 

To that point my writings had been for myself, but as I grew more comfortable with my writing and myself – and in keeping with my obsessive need to share thoughts, feelings, songs, and newspaper articles - I became more social about it. For this burning need to share, I blame my mother; the seeds planted by the dozens of articles my mother would clip, underline, circle and send to me. So it was natural that sharing my stories, both real or made up, would become a reason for writing.

As a reader, I’ve always been an obsessive underliner, bracketer, and highlighter, scratching notes in the margins, double exclamation points, getting turned on at good writing, the kind of writing that resonated deep inside. As I’ve grown older, in an impossible quest to hold all this goodness close, I have become a collector of quotes. I have stockpile them in a massive list that when someday someone finds will say something – who knows what – about me. Some say that quotes are lazy – “those who can’t write, quote”? Not me. A good quote is a perfect self-contained piece of art painted from words that captures a universal truth, a feeling we all know, a sunset.

Here is a favorite one, from Neil Gaiman, about how we all have stories inside of us: “Every one has a secret world inside them . . . Everyone. Unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds. Not just one world. Thousands.” It’s a powerful thought.

I’ve now gotten the point where I have stories that I want to tell. I’ve starting playing with short stories – a mix of fiction and memoir-ish life moments. A good story conjures, connects, and captures something about the human condition and expresses it in a compelling way. As one of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, said: "A story . . . is not something you create. It is something that you pull out of yourself. The story is already there, inside you.” I’m fascinated by that concept.

I’ll be continuing my search for the stories I want to tell, the ones I need to tell and share. And as I find them, I’ll be searching for the words to do it right.

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