Why Do We Write?

[I’ve decided to take a 30 day break from writing poetry and write essays instead. It probably will become evident why I write poetry, but, there it is. – Owen]


Why do we write?

The most common answer is some form of “writers write, because that’s what they do”. This answer avoids the question, of course, but does it in service of an important reason: namely, that time spent worrying about the purpose of our writing takes away from time spent actually writing.

“Writers write” contains the kernel of another important truth, however: namely, that the creative impulse has no real ground, and we who have it are going to have it regardless of whether we ever have an audience or not. “Writers write” in the same way children play, birds sing, and rain falls.

Unless there is some activity in life that we do for its own reason, there is no purpose in ever doing anything. Most of us remember a time in our lives where we played, laughed, loved, and created for no reason but the sheer joy of doing so, and when we were not primarily focused on measures of social success. Don’t get me wrong: the joy of sharing can be a big part of why we write, but there is a difference in sharing with people we know, and counting up buys or likes from people we don’t know — a huge difference, and one we too-often conflate.

The difference might be described as that between the writer’s instinct, and the performer’s instinct: the former’s joy is mostly in the act of creation; the latter’s is primarily in the reaction they garner. Almost all of us have some admixture of both, but where we lie on the spectrum can make a big difference. In a way, the difference is very close to that between introverts and extroverts, in terms of where their energy is derived, from within or without.

Other answers to the original question are valid: we may write to earn a living, or to entertain, or to inform, or to persuade, i.e., in an attempt to effect changes in behavior we think are important. I usually write poetry (I’m taking 30 days to write prose as an exercise, of which this is day 1) and I do so because I have thoughts I want to turn into music, and poetry is the most direct way.

For many writers, joy is within reach so long as we do not place the judgments of others between us and our writing. It’s really that simple.

Critics may fairly be viewed as parasites that feed off of the host organism. We all (as readers) can, through blogs, go straight to the source, and not get our views of people filtered through third parties — which is something like a miracle, when you consider how most news works in the current age. I can read what YOU think, how YOU feel, what YOUR dreams are — something I can’t really ever get from anyone but you.

That’s right, you.

So another possible answer as to “why we write” is that nobody else can do it for us.

Repost: Words from My Mother

(Originally posted in 2016. – Owen)

Recently, my wife and I visited my mother, who is a good way towards the other side of the country.  After being there a few days, my wife said, “your mother is the easiest person to get along with I think I’ve ever met.”  I had to agree.  Non-complaining, generally good-natured, curious and generous, my mother is a very easy person to get along with.  It is not surprising she has made and kept friends wherever she’s been.  She has made these friends many places, and through many years and many changes in life circumstance, including growing up in abject (starvation level) poverty.

My mom has been always, from my earliest memories, very accepting of change; that has served her well throughout (so far) eighty-seven years.  With Mother’s Day upon us here in America, I thought I would display some collected wisdom from my mother.

[Upon being asked how she was coping the year after my father’s death] – Well, life is a series of changes, not all of which we get to know about in advance.  It is like being on a stage: “the dead have played their part”… as long as we’re still on the stage, we still have a part to play.

[Upon hearing someone say “we were poor, but we didn’t know we were poor.”] – Chances are really good, if you didn’t know you were poor, you weren’t poor.  When you’re poor, and don’t have food, you know you are poor.  Every time.  You really can’t miss it.

[Upon hearing “money isn’t everything”] – Money isn’t everything, but poverty isn’t anything.  At least, not anything good.

[When I asked her if she enjoyed us as children] – Being with you three was like watching a television that only has three channels: Melodrama, Mixed Martial Arts, and Uncontrolled Giggling.

[When asked about how she was doing since diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease] – I like ordering soup at restaurants now, just to see how serious they are about their carpet.  I can make an afternoon now out of trying to get a key in a keyhole.

[A few years ago, talking about my daughter’s first broken heart] – You never feel anything again as keenly as you did as a teen.  It’s like all of your nerves are on the outside of your skin; every joy, every sorrow, every embarrassment, you feel to the bottom of your soul.  Its like the entire universe can go black one moment, and then spring magically back into being a minute later because the guy pouring you a soda smiled at you.

[When asked if she worries about death] – Death, to me, is like moving into a new house; it isn’t the end product, but the process of getting there that I dread.

[On change in life] When you spend all your time reading, you spend a lot of time imagining. Still, nobody born in 1931 had any idea what 2018 would look like. Fiction is st least conceivable; reality is not. You just have to accept it.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. From one of the three inconceivable changes that you conceived —

“For Me, Sixteen”

I remember emerging from years of almost entirely same-sex friendships, shocked to find out how much girls had changed from what I remembered, and feeling like I needed a few good courses in cross-cultural communication.

Much of the incremental excitement of relationships at that age (apart from the obviously physical) comes from how “wholly other” the opposite sex seems. They don’t seem to think or act the same way about anything. So dating feels like you’re in an exotic city in some foreign country — which is kind of amazing.

Even the smallest amount of reflection indicates that we are just as strange and unpredictable to our dating partners as they seem to us.

At that age I did not, however, actually engage in even the smallest amount of reflection. From hence sprung many difficulties.


I was sixteen years old for almost my entire junior year in high school in 1978-79, and I was badly in need of a retread. I was still taking piano lessons, but my heart wasn’t in it. Or maybe, my heart was in the music, but it I had realized by that point that my heart would never be in performing, per se.

I had an older friend who was dating a classmate of mine; they were going to a Valentine’s banquet at our church. He suggested I ask one of the other girls at church to go and we could double-date, since I wasn’t old enough to drive.

“But I’ve never been on a date.” I said.

“I know, Owen. All of your friends know this, believe me. That’s why I’m offering to help. You should ask Medusa*,” he said. “I know she’d say yes.”

“We’ve never spoken more than two sentences to each other,” I said.

“I know she’d say yes,” he repeated. Then he handed me her phone number on a piece of paper.

He had come to the conversation prepared. I went to the phone and dialed. “Hello? May I speak to Medusa please? Yes, thank you.” … about 30 seconds … “Hi, Medusa? This is Owen. Would you like to go the Valentine’s banquet with me?”

She said, sure, but not with a lot of enthusiasm.

“Okay, great. Umm… we’ll be with Jon and Tammy, he’ll be driving. We’ll pick you up, um, ten minutes before time, since you live closest. Okay. Bye.”

He was smiling at me. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

I stared back at him. “What’s in this for you?”

“If it’s a double-date, her parents don’t insist on chaperoning. But it has to be people they know from church.”

“I hate you,” I said.


Long story short, the night was a complete fiasco. I never considered it a real date, and it was entirely evident she didn’t, either. But I had supplied valuable wingman service to my friend Jon, so there was that.

Wingmanning, as an important rite of passage, is not to be underestimated.


A few months later, I had turned seventeen and had my driver’s license. It was the weekend, and I was hanging out with several large clusters of teens. On that occasion, still another friend of mine suggested I should approach Medusa again.

“She likes you,” he said.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“No, she does. Just ask her to go for a drive with you,” he said.

“You’re insane,” I said.

“If she says no, I’ll give you five bucks,” he said.

Hey, five bucks is five bucks. I went and found her, talking with some other girls.

“Hey, can I talk to you for a second?”

She said, sure.

We walked a few paces away from her friends. “Would you like to go for a drive with me?” I asked, pretty sure I knew the answer.

“Okay,” she said, almost immediately.

We walked straight out to my car, with my friend grinning like the Cheshire Cat watching us go.


I knew why I was there, but didn’t really know why she was. Upon reflection, I can see that a very similar thought process served as my model for relationships for about twenty years thereafter.

But as for then and there, I had never kissed a girl and wanted to try it, and she was willing. I never learned much about her feelings beyond that.

I think the relationship, such as it was, lasted about two weeks. It ended as abruptly as it had started. Within a few weeks, I was on to another girl.


I was selfish and inconsiderate, of course; I wish I could say I stopped being that way at some point in my life. I think, at some point, my selfishness metastasized to where it is so widespread that I fear I am unable to detect it any more.

That being said, however, what remains is still true: in healthy relationships, we each want what we want and if the other person can’t provide it, we should move on, right?

Right?

I’m not sure that is right. It seems right, though.


* “Medusa” is actually shockingly close to this girl’s actual name, but not quite the same.

“What Could Be More Useless Than A Father?”

My father was a good man, a kind man, a talented man. Looking back, I can see, sadly, that some of us who knew him best treated him the worst.

This piece, which is from my other blog, includes a few memories of my father.

And yes, he played the guitar that well.


What Could Be More Useless Than A Father?

“There’s No Place Like Home…”

I got a night at home with my nearly three-year-old grandson.

My wife, daughters and mother-in-law all went to a conference tonight, across town, so I got a night at home with my nearly three-year-old grandson. We played in the yard; he came in and played in the bathtub; he had something to eat; we played with his animal toys; and, finally, he wanted to watch “The Wizard of Oz”. My twenty-one-year-old son joined us for the second half or so of the movie.

The enchanted poppies in that movie worked not only on The Cowardly Lion, and Dorothy, but, apparently my grandson. He fell asleep on my chest, and I moved him into under a blanket a few minutes later.

There’s nothing like a good story at bedtime, I guess.

Remembering My Father

Smells – nothing brings back memories so vividly.

(Originally published 11-17-2012 – Owen)

I went for a drive in the surrounding countryside this morning, an absolutely perfect November Saturday, and found myself thinking about my father.  Autumn leaves were blowing across the roads I travelled under a glorious blue sky, and I stopped at a chance point and headed into a chain drug store.  I picked up a few snacks, and, looking around the store, I saw (and purchased) something which brought the memory of my father back that much stronger: a bottle of Vitalis.

For those who don’t know, Vitalis was a very popular men’s hair care product of yesteryear.   I have no hair to speak of, so I put in on my beard and brushed it through.  The scent of it reminded me of my father from my earliest memories. It isn’t a strong smell at all, very pleasant, and decidedly masculine.

One memory of my father is of him coming to pick me up from an airport.  I was eighteen years old, and had just washed out of the Air Force after only eleven days.  I left home afraid, but full of the confidence (or arrogance) of my adolescence; I came home broken, but on the road towards getting wiser, perhaps.  He told me in the car of the disappointments he had suffered in his career; I had known none of this until that moment.  My father could be a hard man to communicate with, but whenever things got really bad or really serious, he suddenly snapped into a sort of bracing directness which I will always cherish in my memory.  I felt somewhat better knowing that a person could go on through somewhat humbling circumstances. as he had.

My father was a brilliant man, of course, a master of so many talents that I listed them for paragraph after paragraph giving his eulogy years later.  He was also a very reticent and introspective man, albeit of an oddly chatty kind – a trait I have inherited.  People rarely spot me for the introvert that I actually am.  He was generally recognized as an introvert, and seemed happiest being left to his hobbies.  On the other hand, he loved more than anything when our entire family would make music together, usually by singing.  Music was his society.

As I drove on, drinking my Coke Zero and smelling the Vitalis on my face, I remember my father taking us for rides in light aircraft.  He belonged to (and had founded) the “Aero Club”, local pilots who got together an purchased small aircraft for common recreational use.  I never cared much for flying, but I remember our short trips to various spots nearby.  Oddly, the meals we would have on the ground often made a bigger impression on me than the flights.  Many of the local airports were at or near the countryside I am driving in now, in western Georgia and south and east Alabama, near our then-home in northwest Florida.

So many people remember neglect or abuse in their childhood, and, make no mistake, I was often a troubled and angry child; nonetheless, for my father and my mother (who is still alive), I remember more and more the many things they did or tried to do for us kids.  Many beautiful times, travelling across the country by car, singing at home, playing games, having family devotions, making music, discussing issues of the day over dinner.  The view of parenting they had was to love us, provide for us, and get us ready for adulthood with the tools we needed to make our choices in the world.  Its a view of life that never goes out of style – like the smell of Vitalis or breezes on a cool Autumn day.

Vitalis

Classy

Because I am a very logical person (I’m an actuary, and a mathematician by training), I like binary categories.  Either/or types of things, whether everything is either in one class of thing or another.  People find this type of thinking simplistic, but it naturally suggests itself all over the place, and is useful for understanding the world.

For example, my brother says “there are pianists and people who can play a piano, and if you don’t know the difference, I can’t explain it to you.”  In this case, he divided the world of people who can push down piano keys into two categories, thereby explaining that not everyone who plays the piano is, indeed, proficient or musical.  So that’s the way binary distinctions work.

Here are a few binary distinctions about people that I use in everyday life.  They are not, I believe, the typical ones people use.

  1. People Who Care If They Are Making Others Wait – Vs – People Who Do Not Care If They Are Making Others Wait.  I am in the first of these categories.  I am inevitably behind people from the second category: at the grocery store, at a fast-food drive-through, wherever.  These are people completely unprepared for whatever they happen to be doing; who don’t know what they want to order; don’t have access to their money or credit cards or whatever they pay with; and who feel like having long conversations with others (in person or on their cell phones) rather than finish whatever business they are conducting.  CONCLUSION: While the second class is indifferent-to-passively-hostile to the first class, the first class wants to SERIOUSLY INJURE people from the first class on a daily basis.
  2. People Who Do Things – Vs – People Who Criticize Others Who Do Things.  The second class of people here is a species of parasite who feeds on the first class of people like a host organism.  The Internet provides amazing opportunities (as WordPress does) for people who want to create, share, or self-publish… in other words, ways to DO things.  However, the truly explosive growth has been seen in the second class of people, who spread like a flu strain in places like Facebook and YouTube comment threads.  These are people who cannot play a sport, write a book, run for office, or, often, even hold down a job, but they are self-denominated-experts who are very disappointed with the products of people in the first class.  CONCLUSION: These two classes would physically fight on a regular basis, except the second class would end up having to do something, which never happens.
  3. People Who Understand Parking Lots – Vs – People Who Don’t Understand Parking Lots.  A “parking lot” has things called “parking spaces” where people can stop their car for whatever reason.  It also has things variously called “throughways”, “roads”, or even “aisles” where cars are supposed to move according to the usual traffic conventions.  If you are in the first class of person, you are wondering why I am telling you this.  If you are in the second class of person, you think every part of a parking lot is for parking, including the roads, throughways, aisles, curbs, entrances and exits.  As a matter of common observation, no conversation is quite so fascinating as the ones people have on cell phones while parked at parking lot exits, stopping other traffic from leaving.  CONCLUSION:  I write this to raise awareness about this important difference.  I do not expect anyone in either of these classes to change, because this appears to be an unbridgeable human gulf.  ALSO: has many similarities to category 1, above, as people who don’t care how long they make others wait also tend to park wherever they feel like.
  4. People Who Like Poetry – Vs – People Who Only Barely Qualify As Human Don’t Like Poetry.  I am not biased in any way on this one.  Actually, most people I know who claim to dislike poetry love it in other some other form or forms they don’t recognize as being poetry: rap music, song lyrics, nursery rhymes, greeting cards, mnemonics or even catchy alliterative names for days of the week.  CONCLUSION: Similar to the category of “People Who Don’t Like Music,” people truly in the second category here are to be pitied more than anything else.  In a strange twist of fate, “People Who Don’t Like Poetry” turns out to have a heavy overlap with “People Who Criticize Others Who Write Poetry” (see #2, above.)
  5. People Who Think Everything In The World Is About Them – Vs – Women.  I kid.  There are almost as many narcissistic women in the world as there are narcissistic men in my hometown.  Just jokes.  My wife has had to remind me from time to time that various events in her life (for example) have happened without being in any way referent to my existence.  I’m not entirely sure what she’s talking about, of course, because I am squarely in the first category of person.  CONCLUSION: This actually is a commonly used binary (men Vs women) and the subject of more blogs than there are fish in the sea, so I’ll stop there.
  6. People Who Think Everything Is A Competition – Vs – People Who Don’t Think Everything Is A Competition.  This is a troublesome binary, as pairs of these frequently marry each other. For reference, only people in the second category should ever get married at all: if you think marriage is a competition between partners, don’t bother doing it, you are going to fail.  CONCLUSION: If you are in the second category, carefully determine whether or not any prospective marital or life partner is in the first category, as typically, they find more satisfaction in divorce (which can indeed be a contest) than marriage.

Are there binaries you find useful in everyday life?  What conclusions can you draw from these distinctions?