Why I Write: A Celebration of the National Day on Writing
Date: October 17, 2011
Summary: The urge to write can be a mysterious calling. There are so many different ways to understand not only the why of writing, but what one gets out of it. To celebrate the National Day on Writing, the NWP has joined The New York Times Learning Network and Figment to collect the thoughts of people from all walks of life—scientists, reporters, poets, teachers, and students—to discover why they write.
If you type the words "Why I Write" into Google, it's surprising how many results you'll get. Everyone from George Orwell to Joan Didion to Terry Tempest Williams and an assortment of other writers, famous and not so famous, have pondered this simple yet obviously meaningful act.
To learn. To explore the world. To keep from going insane. These are just a few reasons people have given for why they write.
Writing has been fundamental to human civilization since the first hieroglyphs, and it becomes more important everyday in our world that streams with emails, text messages, tweets, and blog posts. We are all writers, yet the why of writing is a topic of continual exploration.
The National Writing Project, along with the New York Times Learning Network and Figment, is celebrating the why of writing by collecting essays from people from all walks of life, interviewing authors, collecting student essays, spreading the word through Facebook and Twitter—and more—as one way to celebrate the National Day on Writing on October 20.
Why I Write Essays
Why I Write: Gaetan Pappalardo Writes for the Sake of Writing
Gaetan Pappalardo, a teacher-consultant at the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project, shares why he is compelled to write despite its difficulties. As he poetically states, "Writing shatters the chains/Of the jailers of creativity." More ›
Why I Write: Because There Is Power in Storytelling
Heather Wolpert-Gawron, teacher-consultant at the UC Irvine Writing Project, shares how writing has become a timeline reflecting the chapters of her life. "I write because there is power in storytelling, power in advocacy, and power in sharing one's saga," she says. More ›
Why I Write: Elizabeth Murchison Stresses the Importance of Writing for Scientists
Elizabeth Murchison, a scientist who works on the genetics of cancer in Tasmanian devils, stresses the importance of writing for scientists in order to get research done and disseminate results to the scientific community. "Writing is just as important a part of being a scientist as doing experiments in the lab," she says. More ›
Why I Write: Portrait of a Bellicose Writer Hero
Todd Finley, co-director and technology liaison for the Tar River Writing Project, shares how writing got him through a near-death experience. "I just wanted someone to prop me up, open my childproof bottle of oxy, and leave me alone so I could write," he says. More ›
Why I Write: To Spark Creativity, Not Kill It
Erin Klein, a teacher-consultant with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project and a second grade teacher, writes to inspire her young second grade students—but also because she's passionate about topics, like her "Why I Write" mentor, George Orwell. More ›
Why I Write: Becky Tuch Explores the World of Lit Mags
Becky Tuch is creator of The Review Review, a website that reviews literary magazines, and a founding member of the literary blog Beyond the Margins. Tuch interviews journal editors and offers publishing tips to writers. She shares her thoughts on the evolving role of literary journals in the world of writing. More ›
Why I Write: Catherine Mohr on Writing to Organize Thoughts
Dr. Catherine Mohr, the director of Medical Research at Intuitive Surgical, is an expert in the field of robotic surgery, but writing is anything but robotic for her. She shares why she writes—to organize her thoughts and ideas, to understand, and to communicate. More ›
Why I Write: Dyan deNapoli Writes for the Penguins
Dyan deNapoli, a penguin expert and author of the award-winning book, The Great Penguin Rescue, shares her reading and writing background and how she came to write about penguins. "My mission has long been to raise awareness and funding to protect penguins," she says. More ›
Why I Write: Ann Powers Reflects on Writing About Rock
Ann Powers, a music critic who has written for The New York Times, National Public Radio, the L.A. Times, and the Village Voice, discusses how writing about music should be about trying to capture how it feels to listeners: "When it comes to the writing itself, be a writer first and a music fan second." More ›
Why I Write: Gerald Richards on Storytelling and 826 National
Gerald Richards, CEO of 826 National, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping students with creative writing, discusses how writing is vital to his work and to the success of 826. "The ability to write a good grant is enhanced by the ability to write a good story, the story of your organization and the lives affected by the work you do," he says. More ›
Why I Write: Jill Nash Strives for Simple Eloquence in Business Writing
Jill Nash, chief communications officer and senior vice president of Corporate Affairs at Levi Strauss & Co., emphasizes that clear, concise writing is a key ingredient for success in the business world. "There's very little in the world that's as beautiful as a well-written sentence," she says. More ›
Why I Write: Sharon J. Washington Expresses, Connects, and Creates
Sharon J. Washington, executive director of the National Writing Project, describes her need to write. "I write because I need to express myself and to connect to others," she says. "I write because I need to release the words that crowd my head." More ›
Why I Write: Valerie Hobbs Writes with Music in Her Blood
Valerie Hobbs, an award-winning author of young adult books and an NWP teacher-consultant, writes because she cannot not write. "It's in me and it's gotta come out," she says. She's framed a saying that hangs over her desk: "To be born Welsh is to be born privileged. Not with a silver spoon in your mouth, but with music in your blood and poetry in your soul." More ›
["When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, 'I am going to produce a work of art'. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose."]
Why I Write: Leslie Goetsch Writes Because She Has To
Maryland Writing Project teacher-consultant Leslie Goetsch discusses writing her first novel, Back Creek, and explains how writing and teaching are intertwined in her writing process. "I am proudest of the pieces that I have nursed/bullied along to completion," she says. More ›
Why I Write: David Deutsch Writes to Clarify and Learn
David Deutsch, an Oxford physicist and author of several novels about different theories of the universe, views writing as a creative way to clarify his thoughts, so he worries that a rigid, structured curriculum in some schools could stifle the kind of writing he values. More ›
Why I Write: Mark Salzman Writes Because 'It Hurts So Good'
Mark Salzman, an award-winning author of several novels and nonfictional memoirs, delves into how Hellen Keller inspired him to search for wonders in the world. That sense of discovery and inspiration guides him in his writing process—which he calls "an itch he can't ignore." More ›
["Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it."]
Why I Write: Evan Grant's Words Seep into His Technology
Evan Grant, a creative technologist, founder of seeper, and student of the sensory interactions between users and technology, describes the different ways he writes and the cathartic release he feels during the process. "It is a cathartic release that helps structure my thoughts and direction in life," he writes. More ›
Why I Write: Ashley Hope Perez Writes with Her Students in Mind
NWP teacher-consultant Ashley Hope Perez started writing with her students, and they challenged her to write a novel. She published that novel, and now has a second one on the way. She writes while thinking of what would make her students—especially her reluctant readers—turn the page. More ›
Why I Write: Susan Gerhard Finds Life in Film
Susan Gerhard, a San Francisco-based writer and editor, discusses her writing projects and processes as a film critic. "[I write] to communicate ideas others aren't already forwarding, to have an influence on the culture, and to occasionally entertain," she says. More ›
Why I Write: Tim Green Tackles Writing
Former NFL player and bestselling author Tim Green describes how his love of football parallels his love for writing. "The thrill of creating stories that can change the quality of a person's life is as breathtaking a notion as sacking an NFL quarterback," he says. More ›
Why I Write: Charles Limb and the Preservation of Thoughts
Charles Limb, a renowned researcher in otolaryngology and music, elaborates on how he writes to freeze and preserve his own thoughts in a moment in time. "Writing, perhaps more than anything else, allows us to slow down the passage of time by preserving the best of our thoughts," he says. More ›
Why I Write: Jane Hirshfield Writes about Life's Profound Mystery
Prize-winning international poet, translator, and essayist Jane Hirshfield's poetry speaks to the central issues of human existence: desire and loss, impermanence and beauty, and the many dimensions of our connection with others. She tells NWP why she writes. More ›
Why I Write: Anthony Atala's Words Are as Powerful as Sci-fi Gizmos
Regenerative medicine specialist Dr. Anthony Atala's state-of-the-art lab grows human organs—from muscles to blood vessels to bladders, and more. Although he's immersed in sci-fi gizmos in his work, he says writing "is the communication vehicle that moves science forward." More ›
Why I Write: Arvind Gupta Plays with the Words of Science
Arvind Gupta, an Indian toy inventor and popularizer of science for kids, is known for turning trash into seriously entertaining, well-designed toys that kids can build themselves—while learning basic principles of science and design. He brings a similar spirit of exploratory playfulness to writing about science. More ›
Why I Write: Gary Giddins Riffs to Jazz
Gary Giddins, long-time columnist for the Village Voice and unarguably the world's preeminent jazz critic, writes about jazz to let the world know about America's "fecund and flowing" musical tradition, which is sometimes treated as though it doesn't exist—or exists only for those "in the know." More ›
[" If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it. "]
Why I Write: CJ Omololu Explores the Thrill and the Terror of the Teen Years
CJ Omololu might be called an accidental novelist, but once she found herself as a writer, she began to write with such drive that she now writes 1,000 words a day, even on Thanksgiving and anniversaries. "Once you don't open your file one day, it's much easier to not open it the next day and the next," she says. More ›
Why I Write: Freeman Dyson Puts Words to Mathematics
When people hear the name Freeman Dyson, they tend to think of breakthroughs in quantum physics, but Dyson is a prolific writer as well. He's known for bringing conscience and compassion to his books, which interweave scientific explanation and humanism. More ›
Why I Write: Timothy Ferris on Writing to Learn
Timothy Ferris, who has been called "the best science writer of his generation," discusses why he writes—and the importance of writing about science. He says that writing a book or essay is like locking yourself in a room with only two exit doors—one door marked "Learn!" and the other "Fail!" More ›
Why I Write: Writing about Science—A Way to Pay Attention to Nature
Anil Ananthaswamy, author of The Edge of Physics, says that writing is important in science to make jargon come alive with stories, to capture the precision and skepticism that's intrinsic to science, and to inform the world of the scientific truths that are so critical to our lives. More ›
["I write because I think I have something to say that other people would find interesting. I write because I enjoy the challenge of expressing difficult ideas clearly. I write because I take pleasure in trying to craft stylish and graceful prose."]
Why Science Teachers Should Write
Marsha Ratzel, a middle school teacher of math and science, explains why it's so important that students write as a way to learn science—and why science teachers should write as well. "Science needs people who can explain what they're thinking so that the rest of us can understand the world," she writes. More ›
Why I Write: To Awaken the Spirit in the Downtrodden
Twin brothers Al Mills and Nnamdi Chukwuocha use poetry and social action "to awaken the spirit of awareness buried deep within the souls of the downtrodden." Their poem, "Why I Write," aims to teach children about the importance of self-expression and how it can help them through their struggles and challenges. More ›
["WHY I WRITE
Words tumble and link–
they flutter, coo, rush and pop;
I Write Because Writing Has Saved Me
Writing Project teacher-consultant Mindy Hardwick reflects on what makes a writer a writer, and, with journal entries, shows how writing has been integral during turning points in her life. More ›
Why I Write: George Orwell
"Why I Write" is George Orwell's seminal essay detailing his personal journey to becoming a writer. It not only offers a type of mini-biography in which he writes of having first completed poems and trying his hand at short-stories before finally becoming a full-fledged writer, but also examines the motivation of writing itself through the four reasons Orwell felt people write. More ›
Why I Write: Joan Didion
Joan Didion gives her own take on George Orwell's essay, saying that writing is about I. "In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It's an aggressive, even a hostile act." More ›
["Writing is a struggle against silence."]
Why I Write: Terry Tempest Williams
"I write to make peace with the things I cannot control. I write to create fabric in a world that often appears black and white. I write to discover. I write to uncover. I write to meet my ghosts. I write to begin a dialogue." And those are just a few of the reasons why Terry Tempest Williams writes. More ›
Why I Write: Drew Hanson
Drew Hanson, director of Editorial Business Operations at Forbes, stresses the importance of writing in this essay as he ponders going to graduate school to get an MBA. "Writing is my graduate school," he concludes. Why I Write: Drew HansonMore ›
Why I Write: Stephen Elliot
Stephen Elliot, editor of The Rumpus and the author of seven books, including the memoir The Adderall Diaries, discusses how he started writing as a way to sort through the confusion of coming from an abusive home—but his writing life led him in many different directions afterward, always with a different why. More ›
["In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind."]
Why I Write: Pam Houston
Pam Houston, the author of two collections of linked short stories, explains her love of language and how it inspires her to write. "I write for the sheer love of language, to watch the words crash into each other on the page, to watch the spark of electricity between them as they sit together, the rowdy unpredictable joy of language play." More ›
In Inside Higher Education, Lock Haven University's Dana Washington, assistant professor of English, examines how the urge to write is rooted in the desire to create something more enduring than ourselves. More ›
Why I Write: Reginald Shepherd
Poet Reginald Shepherd writes to "rescue some portion of the drowned and drowning, including always myself." He writes not to be bored. He writes "never to forget beauty, however strange or difficult." He writes because he would like to live forever. More ›
Why I Write: A Collection of Essays from NCTE
Celebrities speak to the importance of writing, the National Day on Writing, and
the National Gallery of Writing. More ›
Why I Write: A Collection of Essays from The Guardian
The Guardian published a series including such authors as Will Self, Anita Shreve, Jodi Picoult, and others on the subject of "Why I Write." More ›
Why I Write: Publishers Weekly
Publishers Weekly has collected essays on "Why I Write" by such authors as Michael Korda, Frances Mayes, and David Ignatius. More ›
"Why I Write" Videos
A collection of videos on "Why I Write" as part of the National Writing Project's celebration of the National Day on Writing on October 20. Poets, musicians, actors, and others reveal why they write. More ›
Why Do I Do This?
In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Lucy Snowe discusses how she uses Terry Tempest Williams' essay in her introductory class in creative nonfiction. After some discussion of the essay, she asks the students to follow Williams's model and write a sentence that begins with "I write." More ›
NWP Sites Ready to Celebrate 2010 National Day on Writing
In joining with NCTE and others for the National Day on Writing, NWP, along with its sites, celebrates the Writing Project's mission of promoting writing and the teaching of writing. More ›
NWP Radio: Writing at the Center: The National Day on Writing
We'll hear about plans for this year's National Day on Writing and visit with guests who will talk about how they hold on to the fundamental experience of writing in the midst of their teaching and scholarship about writing. More ›
National Gallery of Writing Launched to Celebrate First National Day on Writing
As part of the National Day of Writing, the National Council of Teachers of English along with 19 national partners opened the National Gallery of Writing. The Gallery features galleries by the NWP, local writing project sites, teachers, and community partners. More ›
How Local Sites Can Participate in the National Day on Writing
As part of the celebration of the National Day on Writing, local writing project sites can create their own galleries featuring the writing of teachers, students, and community members, to be included as part of the National Gallery of Writing. More ›
Related Resource Topics
April is National Poetry Month. For the past couple weeks, Lake Effect has featured work from local poets and talked to writers about what attracted them to the art of poetry. For essayist Richard Hedderman, that's an easy answer.
But what keeps him energized about poetry? Well, that's a bit more complicated.
Essay: Why I Write Poetry
T.S. Eliot famously observed in his great poem, “The Four Quartets,” that April is the cruelest month. Economists quote this line every year during the first two weeks of that month when referencing the climax of the great American tax period. And so I suppose it’s ironic, that April is also National Poetry Month, poetry, unlike the American tax code, being an endeavor without rules or penalties. One never gets penalized for writing bad poetry, thankfully.
Oddly, I’ve never encountered anyone who has parsed Eliot’s line in the context of poetry itself. To what was Eliot referring? I couldn’t tell you. I’ve never been curious enough to sit and figure it out and, let’s face it, Eliot was a drip.
The question of why I write poetry occasionally comes up during National Poetry Month, and I find the reason can be as difficult to decode as Eliot’s line. Like so many male poets before me (maybe even Eliot!), I started writing poetry as a schoolboy out of one great desire: to impress girls. I was convinced that girls liked poetry and were fascinated by boys who wrote it. Write poetry, I reasoned, and girls will flock to you like pigeons to a statue.
That’s perhaps not the most successful image, but the idea was that if I wrote poetry, girls would find me fascinating; I’d be the irresistible focus of their attentions. Sometimes this worked fabulously. Most of the time it didn’t, but that’s OK; I liked poetry anyway and stuck with it.
To begin with, I love poetry for its immediacy, its promise of infinite surprise, its threat of immanent combustion. And I like the compression, how in a poem the entire universe can be packed into a single line. I like how physical it is—it’s compact and powerful like the short, sharp jabs of the boxer. And yet it has an astonishing fluidity: a poem can swim like a trout, plunge like a cataract, heave and spill like an ocean wave. And I’m always fascinated by the sight of ink sinking into the brilliant white flesh of the page as I write it.
I find it distinctly alchemical, wresting the everyday, mundane ordinariness of life and casting it into astonishing new forms—something that is magical, lyrical, heroic, glorious and transformative. It’s without limit in subject or range; a poem can tackle anything. And it’s curative; poetry can calm, console, cauterize and heal.
And I’m also utterly taken with its persistent and enthralling contradictions: a poem can kill two birds with one stone or breathe life into the dead; it can bite like salt or soothe and bind like a skein of silk.
I don’t entirely know why I write poetry instead of another form, or doing something else like throwing pots or playing the oboe. It’s certainly not easy, and it’s not exactly what I’d call fun. Sometimes it is, but that doesn’t keep me writing. I guess it’s just a good fit. It’s a job that somehow I like doing.
In a letter to his brother, Theo, in September 1881, Vincent van Gogh wrote, “I no longer stand helpless before nature.” And that’s the way I feel when I write a poem: it mends the void between myself and the rest of the world, and there is no longer a divide between me and what surrounds me.
Once or twice I literally tried to give it up as one would a bad habit. The impulse to write can be annoying, intrusive and inconvenient, and writing well is hard. It has been said that writing good poetry is like mining lead with a butter knife, only it’s not as lucrative and nowhere near as much fun. (Actually, I said that.) But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t give up the one thing that allowed me to be conversant with the world, and articulate what I felt about everything in it.
And I’ll tell you this: if tomorrow, every sheet of paper—every scrap—blew away in the wind, and all the computers blew up, I’d find a stick and get down on my hands and knees and scratch my poems in the dirt.
Poem: The Art of Writing
I rearrange the paint cans, moving
the rustier ones to the back of the shelf,
check the opera schedule on the radio,
call the exterminator, look up used book stores
in our dog-eared yellow pages. Then
study my fingernails awhile until
they glow with a cool, interplanetary light,
examining them as though an eclipse
might transpire across their slight
and imperfect moons. From there I move on
to the fingertips where the body
harbors its strange, translucent
labyrinths, then consider the hand itself
and imagine wandering, if I could, its 27 shining
ridges of bone, all to keep me from thinking
about what I really fear: the blank page,
how its emptiness is blinding like a terrible fever.
What I truly love is when it’s over,
when the afternoon light
is behind me, the light that illumined
my hand hauling the pen across the trackless
plains of the paper desert. It is only then
that I emerge into the dying evening
light, nothing much on my mind,
heart weightless as a dragonfly, head
like a colander, admiring the spike weed,
Poet and essayist Richard Hedderman’s writing is featured in current and recent issues of Kestrel, Rattle and The Kentucky Review. He lives in Wauwatosa.
Lake Effect essayist Richard Hedderman reads his essay, "Why I Write Poetry," along with his poem, "The Art of Writing."