Why We Write

Have you ever read something so perfect, so true to your being, that you had to stop and immediately read it again?

I’m currently reading Writing Down the Bones, and oh — what a joy this book is. A fellow writer recommended it to me, and I’m going to turn right around and recommend it to others. And I’m not even finished with it yet! But there have already been enough gems to prove its worth.

One chapter struck me in particular: “The Power of Details.” I finished that short chapter, and immediately flipped back and re-read it. And then I wanted to go show it to all the writers I know, shove it under their noses and say, “Here here, read this!” I’ve quoted almost all of it here. I apologize for doing so, for putting such a long quote here — but it’s all so good and true that I couldn’t cut much. It speaks to me as a writer, beautifully and accurately answers to the question, “Why do we write?”

Our lives are at once ordinary and mythical. We live and die, age beautifully or full of wrinkles. We wake in the morning, buy yellow cheese, and hope we have enough money to pay for it. At the same instant we have these magnificent hearts that pump through all sorrow and all winters and we are alive on the earth. We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived. Let it be known, the earth passed before us. Our details are important. Otherwise, if they are not, we can drop a bomb and it doesn’t matter.

Yad Vashem, a memorial for the Holocaust, is in Jerusalem. It has a whole library that catalogs the names of the six million martyrs. Not only did the library have their names, it also had where they lived, were born, anything that could be found out about them. These people existed and they mattered. Yad Vashem, as a matter of fact, actually means “memorial to the name.” It was not nameless masses that were slaughtered; they were human beings.

…..

We have lived; our moments are important. This is what it is to be a writer: to be the carrier of details that make up history, to care about the orange booths in the coffee shop in Owatonna.

Recording the details of our lives is a stance against bombs with their mass ability to kill, against too much speed and efficiency. A writer must say yes to life, to all of life: the water glasses, the Kemp’s half-and-half, the ketchup on the counter. It is not a writer’s task to say, “It is dumb to live in a small town or to eat in a cafe when you can eat macrobiotic at home.” Our task is to say holy yes to the real things of our life as they exist — the real truth of who we are: several pounds overweight, the gray, cold street outside, the Christmas tinsel in the showcase, the Jewish writer in the orange booth across from her blond friend who has black children. We must become writers who accept things as they are, come to love the details, and step forward with a yes on our lips so there can be no more noes in the world, noes that invalidate life and stop these details from continuing.

— Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within

Holy yes to life. Holy yes to all of that.

So now I’ll ask you, fellow writers — why do you write? This, for me, is it.