This morning my 5-year-old son came into the office, looked at my computer screen, and asked, “Daddy, why are you a writer?”
I thought about it for a moment. It’s something I haven’t considered in a long time, up there with why my eyes are the color they are or why I live in Oregon or why we breathe. But I took Connor’s question seriously, because I always take my children seriously. A child’s question is an opportunity to refresh and examine your beliefs and understandings. My kids keep me honest, they keep me assessing, and they help me disrupt myself.
The difference between breathing and atmosphere
But back to Connor’s question: why am I a writer? The gist is simple, I explained to my son. I’ve known since I was 12 that I would work with words. It’s so much a part of me now , that I don’t think about it. If I do think about it, I have to take mental backsteps.
It’s like when you think about the atmosphere. Sure, we all know that we breathe, and we know that we are surrounded by air. But when you stop to think about it, it’s a pretty crazy fact and you need a moment to process it. Connor’s been going through that himself lately, telling us how every time we move, we displace air and create wind, and talking about how the atmosphere is all around us.
As with so many things though, the gist is simple yet incomplete. When I talk to my kids, I try to get to the heart of something, the how and why. For my thinking, I try to find the most truthful explanation that balances being comprehensive with being comprehensible. I believe that life’s great truths are things a 5-year-old can understand—and that adults then constantly struggle to remember.
About the words but not about the words
“When I was becoming a teenager, I realized that words were really important to who I was,” I answered my son. “But I came to understand it wasn’t about the words necessarily, it was about how I could use the words to express thoughts, feelings, and concepts. I came to understand that I was capable of expressing things that other people felt or thought, but they had a hard time putting their thoughts or feelings into words. I could though, and that meant that I was capable of expressing what others wanted to say.”
He nodded, we had a little cuddle, and then he went back to his room to play.
But it got me thinking some more.
Why am I writer?
The real answer
It’s a little like asking why I have arms. As much as I believe in nurture and free will and self-determination, I also believe deeply that some aspects of us are wired in, we just mainly determine how we do or don’t apply those various parts of ourselves.
I’m a writer because I get language. Not necessarily in a grammatical sense—I understand grammar, I have an English degree, but I’m no more going to wax authoritative about grammar than breathing Earth’s atmosphere means I have a comprehensive understanding of the laws of chemistry and physics as it relates to elements in a gaseous state.
I write because I under that language is the process through which we translate the infinite into the temporal and the temporal into the infinite. Language is how we express the heart and explain the mind.
This is not as elementary as it sounds. Ever notice how certain you can be of how you think or feel about something, and then go to actually try to convey it into words?
Yup. It can be hard as hell.
It’s hard as hell for me—and I do this for a living.
I’m a writer because voice is who I am. There have been many years where I’d forgotten that. Or maybe I ran away from it, got scared and tried to abandon a sort of calling.
Many times over the years I’ve been pretty scared of this part of myself. After all, what if I express the wrong thing? What if there are bad consequences? For many years, I’ve erred on the side of saying nothing at all. But not anymore.
I’m not just a writer. I’m a teller, an explainer, a letter painter, an understander, a sharer.
I’m a writer because that is how I can be one with the heart of the world, the soul of us all, and turn it into something that we can understand in our day-to-day lives.
I’m a writer because it’s a decent way to make a living.
I’m a writer because someone needs to be.
I’m a writer because it’s who I am, and it is the only honest truest expression of who I am and what I am on this world, in this life to do.
That’s why I’m a writer.
Now I’m finishing up at this, and I’m thinking of my articulate daughter and my inquisitive son. I’m thinking of how I hope that what I live, what I try to live, is what they will see and connect with too: that just as their mother and I strive to live our most honest truest selves, that we hope that one day, as they come to understand, they will too.
It just happened that for me, it’s being a writer. But for my kids, it’s an example.