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For reasons not as well known to me in my thirties, I replied to a small notice in the Tampa Tribune, looking to hire local columnists. The paper chose writers from 800 submissions and I was among the lucky few. I learned to write tight, because the column is 700 to 1000 words given the space, back when folks still read newspapers. Afterwards the Editor hired me for feature-writing, and I learned to interview, research, and write articles. It was not long, maybe a couple years, when I realized I had little interest in deadlines, but the desire, my desire to write, had been stoked.
That’s the thing with a flame that burns hot enough. There’s no putting it out. I am as fascinated by story as I am by the words that make story possible. In the decades since those first columns, I did a deep-dive into this sea of words, mesmerized and dazzled by the linguistic virtuosity of David Foster Wallace, the diction and line of Virginia Wolf, the spare and turbulent writing of Carson McCullers. How did they do it? Why did they do it?
I know this–from books on writing, biography, memoir, essays—some do so for money, for fame, for self-worth, or any combination thereof. But, some write because they must. And this last category is perhaps the best and most powerful secret of writing—discovery. A lot must happen before discovery. Voyages are not for the weak at heart and the pack list for this kind of journey involves solitude and thought. Writing is a solitary life, so get comfortable being alone.
Writers have an idea of where they are going, but to follow the process of inquiry and observation and research means detours and meandering paths. It may take you to a wholly different place than you set out to write about and it may take you back to where you started.
A few weeks ago, friends came to visit and we had lunch at the iconic Frank Pepe’s. If you’ve been to Pepe’s or had Connecticut pizza you’ll know they brought in the metal rack to stack our three pies, which were huge and much too much for the four of us. Anyway, Craig asked what I’d been up to and at some point in the discussion he said, You write for therapy. Then he moved on to another topic. I had little recourse for comment as Craig recalled events and characters with alacrity, from a breakdown by emergency calls at the fire house to Army entrance exams in the eighties.
My fascination with words notwithstanding, Craig’s assessment of my reason for writing had me consider my motives more closely. Therapy in its modern usage means treatment for a disorder or disease, for an injury or illness. And, that might broadly suggest writing as therapy for the human condition, that we are born dying, that we are born with the firm knowledge that life as we know it is all about the movement from birth to death, that everything in between might advance us along this continuum, a kind of long suffering and disease that is life itself. Death, disease, old age, suffering, these are part of the Buddhist ideas of the Noble Truths, providing a ring of authenticity to this interpretation of therapy.
The more accurate term for my writing was described by a graduate advisor. He found the power in my writing—the movement and the tension—was driven by the search for meaning.
Meaning. How is it that others see us so well, better than we see ourselves? He spent time with my words and writing, reviewing line and paragraph and story. He also did this for a living.
Enough of advisors and friends, good intentions and ascriptions. What are my motives for writing, if not for money or for fame? These reasons are as legitimate as any. I would be wrong to dismiss them even if using a pen name. More than the creative urge and the search for meaning, is the need for discovery. Think of Shackleton in the Antarctic, Darwin in the Galapagos, Borges in his labyrinths, Le Guin in her Earthsea.
Discovery often brings meaning and to set out on any voyage, particularly in writing, is to not know. The best writing begins not knowing where it will end, the characters as yet unknown and un-fleshed out, their actions and nature often thwarting the best of writers, and what they otherwise intended. As the protagonist in this letter, I had not known where I would land—the why behind my writing. I had an idea, but writing forces me to think on the page and exposes the weaknesses, hones in on the strength and the connections, that help me follow the trail.
Story is iterative, the journey is meandering, the writing is rewriting. It is never done. In oral tradition, it changes with the bard, the details change, the characters and scenes are in flux, some even wholly deleted, until the story may no longer be at all like it had when it began.
I’m revising my first manuscript. When I set out to write five years ago, I had no idea where I was going. I wrote about what mattered, what bothered me, what I did not understand. I wanted to know why my daughter wore my combat boots in school, why I was scared to walk to the end of the driveway as a young girl, why I never crossed the street as a child, why my father waited until the last chopper to escape Saigon.
As I wrote, I began to uncover answers I hadn’t known and uncomfortable truths. And, I recognized patterns. I discovered after a year, that I was writing about my daughter’s decision to go to West Point through the lens of my own experience, that she had chosen a similar path as I had, that in many ways I had raised a warrior without knowing. This idea of raising a girl who would become a fighter is a singular journey about a mother-daughter, a military tradition once the purview of men, now belonged to women. There’s nothing new under the sun; they’re the same stories twice told, thrice told. But this is my story, our story.
Discovery on this scale of 90,000 words resembled what I have written in one essay, in one paragraph, in one sentence. Start here with the first word and end here at the finish. Start to finish. You travel in a sentence with letters and words and you add more words which add meaning. You find meaning. A journey may be to the Antarctic and a journey may be here on the line with me on this screen, following each word and line and sentence and paragraph to its end.
Why I write has everything to do with discovery. Then comes learning from what I have set down, how I have changed when I get where I think I wanted to go. And, then there’s more writing, which means going back to rewrite, getting it right, making the story work. I’m still there, by the way, in the manuscript. In late revision and final drafts.
James Salter wrote for many reasons, admiration among them. Later, he said he wrote because I see the world in a certain way.
In the end, writing is like a prison, an island from which you will never be released but which is a kind of paradise: the solitude, the thoughts, the incredible joy of putting into words the essence of what you for the moment understand and with your whole heart want to believe. (James Salter in Why I Write, Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction, 1999)
When I’m done with my manuscript, I will set out again. For me, it is absolutely vital that I get off the island, escaping long enough to do and live and breathe, then yes, return to the island to reflect, to craft the words, to get the story down, to share the discovery.