In my short bio on my blog site, in my entreaties to people to read what I post, in my essays, I both allude to and actively skirt the question “Why do I write?” It is easy for me to say that it is something that I have always wanted to do and it is something that I have played around with in various small ways for much of my life, but that is a neat little package wrapped in a truth, but not the truth. Not that you are likely to find the whole truth of it here, though I will try to provide just that. A flitter of nerves in my stomach tells me that on some level just below my conscious thoughts I am afraid of the truth. In my head I hear the condescending rant of Jack Nicholson from A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth!” Perhaps I can’t. Perhaps I am afraid because I feel writing is a religion with any bound writing a bible, and religion requires faith to exist, that finding the truth of it will dispel the act and the gift as surely as the finding irrefutable proof of God will send the Almighty dissipating to the winds in a cloud of logic. I feel I do need to divine it though, and if it has any chance of sticking to me, I must be honest not only to myself but to the reader as well.
There are countless books that describe the process of writing, that help one to write fiction, memoirs, poetry, non-fiction, whatever you wish. I own several of these, but they address the mechanics, the technical, the form and function. The underlying metaphysics of writing are individual and therefore deeply personal, so that no one writer can ever say why all writers write.
My writing life begins with and hinges upon reading. I was born into a family taken by reading. My mother read books that entertained her, probably because her five children were not always as entertaining as she would have liked. My father read primarily for his edification, reading on such diverse topics as history, biology, and philosophy (although science fiction was his guilty pleasure in all that). Between and betwixt the chaos that five active children can raise, all of us were able to find reading that suited us and spoke to us. For most of my formative years, I embraced science fiction which gave me a glimpse of realities just tantalizingly out of reach. My heroes were Asimov, Sturgeon, Niven, and Clark. Family trips to the bookstore or library were mandatory pilgrimages prior to any vacation, the books we were to read as anticipated as the place we would read them.
I found that reading had the affect of allowing me to truly enjoy my classes in spelling, literature, and English. And though I had a perspective spiraling toward the scientific and mathematical (a solitary pursuit when compared to my siblings), I loved learning new words, tasting new phrases, and understanding the structures which comprise good sentences. I was as happy with a writing assignment as I was with a mathematical proof. In retrospect, this is where I wandered far afield from more literate endeavors. Though I loved words, I was attracted by the more stable constructs of science. It was a safer and easier landscape for a boy to explore than the landmine laden frontier of the visceral.
In high school, I blossomed in math, contemplating the concept of infinity with glee, taking in the subtle beauty of Euclidian geometry. Never realizing that amongst the hardened pathways and seemingly solid ground that math and science were built upon, my eye was engaged with their abstracts – a literary-like approach. I also stepped occasionally outside my shell to dip into the warming waters of writing. Two such efforts will always come to mind. The first was a paper we had to write for a DAR contest on the concept of One Nation Under God. I wrote on Satanism and witchcraft in the United States and earned a trip to the office and call to my parents because I was offended that it would not be submitted to the DAR (oh what a rebel I was). The second was a science fiction short story re-telling Genesis for a creative writing class. I still remember cringingly the words I laboriously typed on my father’s old manual Royal typewrite (I am also still proud of it and the grade I received).
Even though I left high school to attend Engineering school at Clemson, and left Clemson to do applied research for the railroads, there were cracks in my self imposed armor that allowed the need and urge to write to slowly seep from me. It predominantly expressed itself through cartooning. In high school, I wrote comic strips for the school telling the ongoing adventures of Super Manager and his able sidekick, Ball Boy. Unknowingly this allowed me a creative release in a life otherwise dominated by athletic endeavors, homework, and fear of girls. In college, I continued to cartoon (and for much of the time to still be scared of girls). I fell in with an incredible cast of friends in a running group we formed calling ourselves the Out-of-Control Track Club or the OCTC. We ran twice a day seven days a week together, and for our weekly beer-based meetings at the bar called “The Study Hall,” I would provide a comic strip of the OCTC in all its eccentric glory. The chinks in my armor only widened once I moved into a professional life as not only would I post the occasional comic outside my office, but would write humorous “articles” (once even an entire “newspaper”) poking fun at myself and co-workers to the delight of all (except those in charge of my professional future, but that is a tale for another time).
All this is to say that eventually amidst the turmoil of adulthood, I found that I wanted to do more than to be funny. I discovered my fingers wanted more than to just draw humorous scenarios in pictures and words. I found that I had been trying to contain that which ultimately I could not contain – the need to express myself in words, black on white. Contrasting shades that miraculously contain meaning, feeling, and texture whose sum went beyond the twenty-six letter alphabet that compose them. I look back and recognize that I have always wanted to write, that there was a hunger that I tried to feed with bare scraps and leavings insufficient to the appetite.
Now as I write more and express myself more, I find myself needing to write more and explore myself more. I find that there is a nature to my desire that is espoused in catharsis and self-definition.
The cathartic aspect of writing for me is self-evident. As I write, I express my opinions, dreams, hopes, and ideas. It is through the written word that I am drawn to put these things forward in an explosive release of scribbling pen and the staccato tapping of fingers on plastic keys. Each time I face the blank page, I yearn to give birth to another feeling or image – not to free myself of it, but to shake it loose of its dusty cage and expose its beauty, horror, or banality, to see if it has the legs to stand on its own.
As I write, I am seeking who I am, what tribe I have been born into. We have all had dreams or fantasies that we are descendants of kings and queens, and few that speculate on their lives before reincarnation claim to have lived as a street sweeper or jester. Writing however is different; lineage is claimed through the authors that most resonate from our reading into our writing. It is not an act of pretension; rather it is a reverent recognition of those that awakened the muse in us. My voice invariably links me to a clan, and this clan is to be found in the pantheon of writers who speak to me the loudest through their works. The ranking gods of my personal Mount Olympus are James Dickey, John Nichols, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Wolfe, and the lordly and damaged Pat Conroy. I do not in the least consider myself to be on a par with these shaman of my tribe. It is because their prose speaks to me and caresses my soul like no other works that I have immersed myself in. Here at fifty I find myself a toddler learning to talk by listening to their words and the dictates of my spirit, as any child learns to speak. And as a child, I refine my accent, my voice through experimentation and mimicry hoping something unique (yet traceable) will result. I do this in hope of growth and in homage of those that have inspired me to writing.
After letting my fingers move of their own accord across the keys and my spirit wander where it will , I do not know if I have shed any light or answered any questions. I only feel that this exploration has run its course for now. That there are no more fossils I wish to exhume from the eroded and exposed walls of the canyon that runs through my soul. I know only what I knew before I began typing, that I write when I can, that I don’t write near enough, and that I will never stop writing now.