Several times during Piedmont Laureate events this year, I’ve been asked a variation of this question: Why do you write? I have tried to answer as best I can, kind of fumbling my way through it as I often do when put on the spot in a live-audience setting. But I don’t feel like I’ve come up with an answer that has satisfied anyone, especially one person who was particularly insistent at yesterday’s event in Pittsboro.
So I thought I’d take a crack at it here, in writing — which, come to think, is part of the answer. There’s a reason I communicate better via the written word, and it’s because writing isn’t just something I do, or even start and stop. I never stop because writing is who I am, a central part of my identity, and it’s been that way since long before I even became a writer.
From a young age, telling stories was an instinct that landed somewhere between impulse and urge. Even when I was in the middle of an activity, I’d find myself mentally arranging memories and facts in such a way that I could recount the experience afterward.
This tendency manifests as a number of characteristics, not all of them positive — crippling self-consciousness, for one thing, as well as an inclination to hang back and observe rather than plunge in and participate. I think it’s a big reason why I wound up writing about music instead of trying to play it myself. Well, that and the fact that I had no musical ability whatsoever. But I figured out early on that my place was out in the crowd bearing witness, and then recording the experience for others to read about.
Ultimately, though, it’s for myself rather than other people. Writing is how I process events and try to make sense of the world, whether or not anyone else ever reads it. I’ve been fortunate enough for that to add up to a living for basically my entire adult life (at least so far).
So yeah, that’s how I’m wired: Something happens, I write about it. Maybe it winds up in a publication of some sort, or on social media or the electronic equivalent of a dead-letter office. Going forward, it’s not clear how much of my writings will go where.
My life’s work has been as a scribe, primarily watching and recording others doing things. It made me a good newspaper journalist — and also made it wrenching to lose that identity when I left the daily-paper ranks six months ago. That’s something I still grapple with pretty much every day. Even though I’m still writing elsewhere, that newspaper mindset remains and I think it always will.
For good or for ill: That’s why I write.