Yet Another Meditation on Why We Write

As a past creative writing major and Writer’s March guest blogger and participant, the last few years have been a fascinating, vexing, and many times defeating redefinition of my relationship with writing.   When I was an undergraduate and asked why I write, the reasons were somewhat self-centered. They had to do with my own parsing of the world, my own relationships, my introversion and anxiety, my penchant for escapism. Somewhere in there, I had an understanding that other people might want to read my stories and that this might contribute to some sort of universal empathy and understanding of others, but ultimately, it was just about me. I enjoyed writing, I was good at it, and it made me feel slightly less crazy than not writing did.

As I matured (I guess…or something like that…) those reasons just didn’t hold enough water for me to keep writing consistently, and without being conscious of it, I began to reframe the act of writing as something that had a lot less to do with me as an individual and more about the collective stories and ideas that writing could manifest throughout the world. Continue reading

Day 30: Marching into the Void

By guest blogger Lenore Gusch

Back when I was still a student, complaining about being in school, how all of my time seemed to go to studies that didn’t have anything to do with my writing, and how much more creative I could be if I just had more time to myself, everyone warned me that life after graduation would be different, and maybe not in the ways I wanted. No more deadlines. No more workshops and writing prompts. No more interesting literary internships. No more instant writing community at my fingertips. My motivation to keep at it would have to be entirely my own.

It was true. I graduated, and suddenly was writing into a void. The writing community that had nurtured me for four years went missing.

Many of us on the March have been lucky to keep in touch with our writerly friends from school or to find our own new writing communities. (I still send drafts and story ideas back and forth with a few of my close friends.) Some have been even luckier to go on to MFAs, lead their own creative writing classrooms, or find other careers that foster their continuing to write. But I suspect that out of the fifty-six challengers this month, there are just as many of us who are not surrounded by a single other writer in our day to day lives. (My boyfriend sometimes jokes that he is illiterate, which, although completely untrue, still sends chills down my spine. He rarely reads and never, ever writes.) Many have other full time careers, significant others, and/or families commanding their attention. (Lots of it!) And still, we write on. For some reason, we insist upon it.

A lot of the posts on this March have been about doubts. “Why am I doing this?” “Am I crazy?” “Is my writing any good?” “What is the value of art, anyway?” Some of these are easier to answer, like the first one. Revisit Jennifer Simpsons blog to see why a whole slew of writers are sticking with this insane endeavor. Some of them are more problematic, like the second one. (Only you can tell you how truly neurotic you may or may not be, and why, and if you’re really crazy, you probably won’t be able to tell!) I tend to get hung up on the last one. What is the value of art? What is the value of writing? Why is it important that we tell stories to one another? Are there better things I should be doing? I have a deep belief built from groundless faith that it IS important. That it is, perhaps, the most important thing that humans can do while they’re stuck here together on the earth. But when it comes to articulating this to a society-at-large which is less and less invested in art as a measure of success and happiness, I often falter.

As a student, I had a built in excuse when I needed to go “work.” Now, when I have to explain to my boss why I don’t want to work full time at the douchey steakhouse downtown, or why I don’t want to go to yet another family dinner with my pseudo-inlaws, I can’t play the student card. I just have to be a degenerate recluse who isn’t motivated by things that make sense, like making as much money as possible, finding a career, starting a family, yadda yadda yadda. Instead, I’m just messing around with this weird hobby that few people really “get.” (I thought about writing a whole post on how society tends to measure success, and how we fit in—or don’t—as writers, but it goes down such a bitter rabbit hole that I thought better of it.)

Still, we are compulsive. We are crazy. We are going to do this thing no matter what, right?

Playing by the Mississippi river.  Absolutely not writing.

Playing by the Mississippi river. Absolutely not writing.


All that being said, I will be the first guest blogger this month to confess that I totally, utterly failed at reaching my Writer’s March goals this time around. Partly, it was just bad timing. The busiest month of the year at the douchey steakhouse is March, and I was working twice as many shifts as I usually do, which left little time or energy for anything else. Then, I spent a week in New Orleans with my two best friends and my illiterate boyfriend, where I ate and drank and napped to excess, cooked, read, took pictures, biked around the city exploring and listening to great live music. I had a wonderful, wonderful time. I never picked up a pen the entire time I was there. So partly, it was timing, but partly I was unwilling to be that crazy degenerate recluse who skips out on that breakfast with friends or that last beer in order to go home and write. I didn’t demand it.

We’ve established during this month together that, for whatever reason, this writing thing makes us happy. It fills some need in us. My advice is: embrace the fact that you may, indeed, be a crazy reclusive degenerate. Stop justifying your motives to yourself and others. If you need to work less (ya know, for “the man”) and write more, demand it. If you need more time alone, demand it. If the only way you can produce anything is with Ziggy Stardust playing on repeat at top volume, demand it. Society be damned! When you start to do more of what makes you happy and fulfilled, low and behold, you will become a more productive member of society anyhow. You will become a better lover, parent, and worker because your neurotic, creative itch will be scratched, and then you can contentedly go about other things.

Now that I’m getting ready to march out into the void again, I regret that I didn’t take more advantage of all the lovely advice and writing prompts this month. I wish that Writer’s March could last all year. I want to run around screaming “No! Don’t leave me! Don’t go! I don’t want to be alone again!” But the spirit of the March can carry on!

I try to read something, write something, and play at least one instrument every day, for any amount of time, even if it’s just five minutes. It’s sort of a mini-March that I keep in mind all year long. Here are some things I do to that help:

  • Set goals. They don’t have to be as extensive as what you chose to do in March. They don’t have to be daily. But as Sam keeps assuring us, they really do help.
  • Keep in touch with your writer friends. (Some of these bloggers have their own blogs you can follow, for example.) Even if they are only virtual, remember that you are not the only crazy one. Exchange work if at all possible, and if you’re lucky, find people who will give you honest critiques.
  • Buy a book of writing exercises, or look them up online, and play with them when you don’t feel like working on other projects.
  • Ask friends for writing prompts (even then non-writerly friends) and then give them the results (even if they don’t care).
  • Read as much as possible. I always think of reading as brain-food. Without enough brain-food your brain will be too hungry to write when you sit down to do it.
  • Remember that you don’t need to justify what you’re doing—to yourself or anyone else. 

Good luck out there. I’ll miss you!

Mr. Daisey’s Story-Truth

If there’s one thing I never want to be, it’s a liar.

I’ve said many times to many people, “I do not lie.” Sometimes they look at me funny. “But you’re a writer,” they say. “All writers lie.” Trust me, I’m aware of the contradiction, but I stand by my original statement.

Reality can be a fluid thing. Memory, a subjective, slippery lens. I often confuse dream memories with waking memories. I have, in the past, gotten wrapped up in whole universes built on other people’s compulsive lies and my own faulty perceptions. I have become almost phobic about lies and lying, which may explain why I gravitate towards writing fiction. In writing nonfiction, I’m often afraid of all the things I might accidentally skew.

A few semesters ago, I took a fantastic seminar with Greg Martin on works which blurred the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. Among other things, we read Lauren Slater’s memoir, Lying. As the name would suggest, it is based almost entirely off of lies. Even though, throughout the seminar, we explored various ways of interpreting “concrete” truths, story truths, emotional truths, and everything in between to twist our stories for artistic effect, I never got comfortable with lying. I was no Slater. I admired her, but I knew I would never have the guts to go as far as she went. I had no reason to.

I was reminded of this class the other afternoon when listening to This American Life’s retraction of their story “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory.” Turns out that Daisey’s monologue about the horrific conditions in Chinese factories that supply Apple is largely fictionalized, and that caused quite a stir since the story was put out under the journalistic standards of “truth.” Daisey came onto the show for an interview and, although the host, Ira Glass, kept fishing for a complete public apology and an admission of Daisey’s lies, he insisted throughout that everything in the monologue was “true.” Maybe some of the events didn’t happen in the order he presented them. Maybe some of the people were composites. But everything happened, he said, more or less. Everything was “true to his experience” in China, and he wanted to convey that experience in a way that would reach people. Really reach them. Emotionally and viscerally. He wanted to stir them to action. As a writer, I get all that. The monologue was originally meant for the theatre, and within the context of theatre, those are legitimate claims. But here, Daisey was in the clutches of a journalistic eye and a very pissed off Ira Glass. More and more of his lies were exposed by the minute.

Part of me sympathized, but I was also horrified at Daisey’s complete inability to express his thoughts on artistic license and emotional vs. factual credibility. Throughout the interview, he continued to lie himself into corners and sounded more and more insane. In the end, all parties concluded that the monologue never should have been aired on This American Life. It had no place within journalism. As a writer, I could care less what the monologue did or didn’t exaggerate, twist, or fabricate, but I was angry that Daisey discredited an entire community of writers who grapple with the ethics of their craft daily. I felt like any one of us who had taken Greg’s class could have done a better job of explaining ourselves than Daisey had, but more importantly, being already mindful of our forms, probably never would have fallen into the predicament in the first place.

(If you have the time, listen to the show, if for no other reason than to learn what not to do.)

Now, I’m not some kind of truth-Nazi or anything. I don’t know what “the truth” is any more than you do. So let us all go and experiment and explore and blur every boundary that we can and twist reality and excavate the story-truths from the happening-truth. But for God’s sake, when we lie, let’s just be honest about it.

Documentation Meditation

I spend a lot of time “writing,” but often not a lot of time producing much of anything. That is, I spend a lot of time journaling and writing letters, but not a lot of time working on and revising real pieces. My Writer’s March goal is to spend an hour a day working on these “real” things to see if I can actually start and finish some fully formed stories or essays. I told myself that journaling and correspondance didn’t count toward that hour.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not still keeping a journal, and that doesn’t mean I don’t find it necessary to the rest of my work.

I’m not as compulsive as some when it comes to keeping a journal, but I do think that regular documentation is key to collecting and understanding future writing material. Extraordinary things happen all the time, if you’re paying attention, and those things should be written down. (You might think they were so extraordinary that you’ll remember them forever. You won’t.)

There’s a crazy man who lives next door to me (Or maybe he’s homeless and lives in the alley. If he lives in the apartment next door, someone must be taking care of him.) who I see occasionally doing strange things like laughing maniacally, seemingly at nothing, outside in the middle of the night, or filling a shopping cart with random objects then pushing it back and forth through the alleyway. After the night of hysterical laughter, which I’ll admit was eerily terrifying, I deduced that he is mostly harmless. He always seems to be in good spirits, and when I see him around now, it’s with a certain protective fondness. “Hey! That’s my neighbor! Or…um…some guy who lives in my alley!” As I was leaving my apartment a few days ago to go get coffee and “do some writing,” (that is, sit around and write nonsense in my journal,) I turned out of the alley onto Coal and into a mysterious traffic jam. There was a long line of cars in both stretching in either direction from Columbia. As I inched forward, I saw that my crazy neighbor had moved one of the construction barriers into the middle of the road and was standing in front of it, smiling, and waving an egg timer in the air. (I’m not making this up.) People were honking their horns and yelling out of their windows. Since we’re in the age of cell phones, I’m sure multiple people had already called the police. I thought about stopping and trying to get him out of the road before he could be arrested, but realized that, though I knew who he was, he wouldn’t know me. I kept driving.

As soon as I got to the coffee shop, I wrote it all down. Who knows if I’ll ever use it in future writing.

When I write about things that have actually happened, I like to do it as if I’m writing a scene, with as much sensory detail as possible and good control of time. I’ve often held on to story ideas for years, then looked back at my journals from when I first thought of the idea to find, in some cases, full passages that can be excavated and put into new pieces.

Over the years, I’ve been hard on myself about the amount of time I spend with my journal, and how little I spend on other things. It seems so…lazy. It doesn’t feel like writing because it doesn’t feel like “work.” It remains daunting for me to sit down and work on these “real pieces,” and I know that I think about writing a lot more than I actually write, but I’ve realized that keeping a journal is the hybrid of thinking and writing and often serves to transition my mind into doing more “serious” work. So it’s not only crucial for documentation, it is also a sort of meditation that gets me into the writing zone.