Why I Write
By Dorianne Laux on 2.08.10
I have recently begun to think of writing as what Susan Sontag calls “a wisdom project” in her forward to Another Beauty, a collection of autobiographical essays by the great Polish poet Adam Zagajewski.
“…autobiography is an occasion to purge oneself of vanity, while advancing the project of self understanding—call it the wisdom project—which is never completed, however long the life.”
I am still hard at work on this project of the self. The solitary self, as well as the self in relation to the world and the unknown universe we swirl around in, uncertain of our purpose or future. When I wrote the poems that would become my first book, I didn’t think of it as a book, but rather as a need to understand the basic questions that all human beings ask: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? What is beauty? Why is there suffering? Where is truth? These questions would arise in me in the form of poems, and in making the poems into a collection, I tried to arrange them in a shape, find a path for them to travel to make clearer those questions. I write to know the questions.
Poem after poem, book after book, the ante is upped. I think this could be why it takes so long between books. The poet is working harder each time to go deeper, farther, layering on or stripping away to find the exact color or texture, the core or the root, the frail light or the watery dark. I write to work things out. I write to concentrate, to feel a sense of purpose rise up in me. I enjoy the struggle of making a new object to present to the world, a gift made from scratch—whole, unique, edible as bread. And I want that gift to travel well, packed into an old boat on calm water or hidden inside a greased body diving into a blue pool, a sleek arrow that leaves a feathered silence and wonder in its wake. I like moving, word by word, toward a sense of discovery, toward an awareness of self—a curious, energetic, intelligent, sacred, baffling, depthful, heartful self. I work to find my subject, something I can sink my teeth into. I live for that flaring up of language, when the words actually carry me, envelope me, grip me. And all the above is why I read poetry, to hear the truth, spoken harshly or whispered into my ear, to see more clearly the world’s beauty and sadness, to be lifted up and torn down, to be remade, by language, to become larger, swollen with life.
I write to add my voice to the sum of voices, to be part of the choir. I write to be one sequin among the shimmering others, hanging by a thread from the evening gown of the world. I write to remember. I write to forget myself, to be so completely immersed in the will of the poem that when I look up from the page I can still smell the smoke from the house burning in my brain. I write to destroy the blank page, unravel the ink, use up what I’ve been given and give it away. I write to make the trees shiver at the sliver of sun slipping down the axe blade’s silver lip. I write to hurt myself again, to dip my fingertip into the encrusted pool of the wound. I write to become someone else, that better, smarter self that lives inside my dumbstruck twin. I write to invite the voices in, to watch the angel wrestle, to feel the devil gather on its haunches and rise. I write to hear myself breathing. I write to be doing something while I wait to be called to my appointment with death. I write to be done writing. I write because writing is fun.
Editor’s Note: This short essay is from Red Thread, Gold Thread: The Poet’s Voice an anthology edited by Alan Cohen. It is a book of essays by poets on how they came to poetry and why they practice their art. Funds from the book are going toward the continuation of the annual Power of Poetry Festival held in Logan, Ohio since 2002. You can buy the book here.