[Today’s guest post is from Jennifer Grant, a wonderful writer and an outstanding encourager, who brings both to bear in this piece on writing. How can you not enjoy reading someone who can put the Rolling Stones, Star Trek and a dog named Shiloh all into one article? While some readers may recognize this post from the archives, it is well worth re-reading, especially with the postscript and updates from Jennifer below, reflecting her thoughts now three years after she originally wrote this piece for my site.]
Not Because I Must
Some writers talk about their chosen profession as though it’s better described as a compulsion:
“I write because I must,” they sigh.
My dog Shiloh seems to understand his habit of chasing squirrels in the same way; when he sees one nosing around the yard, he must try to catch it.
A Star Trek devotee might explain the need to attend a convention by saying he must (boldly) go.
Chided for drenched wet socks and shoes, children may defend their choice to jump in rain puddles by saying they “just had to.”
But the writer who “must” write is expressing something qualitatively different than the dog, the Trekkie, or the puddle-jumping child. In short, the “I must write” writer seems to be wearily obeying an internal directive and lacks the panting, the giggles, and the joy.
Writers, including myself, are arguably happier (or at least less uneasy) when we are regularly practicing our craft. Some of us – again, myself included – routinely confess that we can’t begin to understand something until we write about it.
But the idea that we must write? I don’t think it’s true. If we stopped, would the sun still rise? Would human hearts, including our own, continue to reoxygenate blood? Would Adam Levine continue to insist that he has the moves, like, well you-know?
(Um, yep. On all three counts.)
If It’s Not that I “Must,” Why Do I Keep Writing?
Here are three reasons I write, in order of most to least mundane:
1. I write because I can do it from home. (Or, “It fits with my other vocation: parenting.”)
2. I write because I like my colleagues. (Or, “Writers are soulful folks to know.”)
3. I write because it’s how I make sense of life. (Or, “I can only figure stuff out when I write about it.”)
Reason 1: I can do it from home
Whether my desk has been tucked away in an English department or in a cubicle in a high rise, working in the same office space day after day knocks me off-balance.
After a week or two in a new place, I start imagining that I’m a laboratory rat in a maze. I can almost sense a research scientist recording my journeys down the hall to the copy machine and back, marking a chart with careful, orange dotted lines.
As I push back my chair to fill my coffee mug, I can almost hear a voice narrating, “Today the subject made a detour from the usual route, took four additional steps, and placed something in the third drawer of the filing cabinet. Only time will tell if this is a new pattern for her.”
Besides avoiding the “lab rat” syndrome, working from home affords me the opportunity to check in with my kids after school when the events of their days are fresh in their minds. I like knowing what was the most stomach-turning thing that happened at the lunch table that day, hearing what they’re working on in art class, and more. As my eldest approaches college, I’m aware that this “four kids at home” time is short and I want to be present for it.
I also like breaking up my workday by stirring whatever is going in the crockpot or nuzzling my dog.
It’s a privilege to work from home; I know it.
Reason 2: I like my writing colleagues
Writers, or at least the ones I am fortunate to know, are generous, sharp-witted folks who gather around an idea and appreciate the perspectives of people very different from themselves. They see the meaning in things, are quick to listen and slow to judge, and appreciate the importance (given their exposure to “haters” in the comments sections, rejection letters, and confounding editors) of being gentle with their friends. In short, they are people with open hearts. (They also tend to have superb senses of humor.)
My writing friends and I, year by year, take ourselves less seriously and our work more seriously. We maintain – most days, anyway – loose grasps on our adolescent desires for wealth, fame, and for everyone to like us.
My writer friends make me feel seen. They understand that as much as I long to work alone, being a writer can feel exceptionally lonely sometimes. They understand that a pre-existing condition of being a writer often is to have a slightly (ahem) over-sensitive nature. In other words, they give me a pass when I’m weepy and have lost all perspective, and they tenderly pull – or yank – me back on track.
Reason 3: It’s how I best make sense of life
I write because it is how I navigate my life. Until I wrote columns and a book about my daughter’s adoption, I didn’t take the time to understand why I felt like I had post-partum depression after she came home. Until I wrote about these tangly issues, I’d felt silenced by one-dimensional arguments that demonized all adoption. Writing Love You More was freeing, and it made me a better “adoptive” parent.
Likewise, until I wrote MOMumental, I wasn’t sure why certain parenting practices felt critical to me or why family was so gnawingly important to me. But as I wrote (and wrote and wrote), things became clearer. I gained insight into what drives me, what are my wounds, and what makes my heart fill with joy.
And, speaking of joy, that too is another reason why the “I must write!” writers rub me the wrong way. For me, being a writer is a privilege. Finding just the right way to articulate something – always after editing my work many, many times – is deeply satisfying. On occasion, I read a sentence (or paragraph) I’ve written and re-written and say, “Ooh. Yes. That’s good. That’s exactly what I meant.”
That brings me joy.
Although – like all the real writers I know – I routinely get disheartened and second-guess my calling and think everyone is secretly conspiring to discourage me, the actual thing of it – the writing – helps me better understand the world and my place in it and let go of damaging messages and the people who convey them.
I feel blessed to spend my days with my itchy, unfinished thoughts, highest hopes, and memories and, like a character in a fairy tale who can only do magic when no one else is around, try to spin them into gold.
Reading this essay, three years after writing it, I wondered if I’d want to edit it or if I’d answer the question of “why I write” differently now. But, no, it still feels true. Life’s changed a bit since it was first published. This fall my second son will begin college, so my husband and I will have a much-transformed family life with only our two daughters at home. I now have two dogs to keep me company while I write—the ever-noble Shiloh and his talkie, playful little sister Scarlett whom we brought home from a shelter 1.5 years ago.
I submitted my fifth book to my publisher a few weeks ago, so I’m fresh off the all-consuming task of finishing that manuscript. (What this means is that I feel a mix of relief and exhaustion, and I get alternating twinges of excitement and panic about releasing the book into the world in several months.) Like my earlier books, the new one gave me the chance to figure out what I really thought about something and the “something” this time is midlife. I wrote about everything from the shock of finding a hair sprouting from my chin to the tricky bits of parenting adolescents to facing my own mortality—all of which have been new challenges in my forties. And, I’m happy to say, I was able to see the many ways that life is opening up for me in midlife, as I start to shift away from the full-time task of raising kids and find myself with more time for contemplation and more time to invest in my passions and friendships. Look for When Did Everybody Else Get So Old? early next year—especially those of you who are entering—or in the thick of—midlife.
Jennifer Grant is the author of five works of nonfiction: Love You More, MOMumental, Disquiet Time, Wholehearted Living, and the forthcoming When Did Everybody Else Get So Old? (May 2017 from MennoMedia/Herald Press). She also wrote, with author Margot Starbuck, an e-guide for aspiring writers called Writing Nonfiction Book Proposals that Shine. Augsburg Fortress/Sparkhouse will release her first published children’s picture book, Maybe God is Like that Too, in the coming months. Find her online at jennifergrant.com, Facebook and Twitter.