Why We Write

It is nearly the end of spring quarter, and of the 2010-2011 academic year. On Friday morning, a student from my research paper class stopped by and I went over his final project with him. We read a few paragraphs together. I pointed out some errors. I attempted to show him how a narrower frame for the essay could give it more focus, more oomph. He packed the paper back into his bookbag, stood up, then, hesitating at the door and looking at me with an expression of distress on his face, he said, "May I ask you a random question?" When I said of course, he said, "Why do we have to study writing in college?"

At first I wasn't certain what he meant. Did he mean that by the time they reach college, students have already mastered writing? That they shouldn't need any additional writing instruction?

Okay, so I think he was asking "Why are writing classes required?" But the reason he was asking wasn't that he already knew how to write--not at all. Rather, he didn't see why he needed to know how to write. He seemed to believe that the required writing credits for a transfer degree were as arbitrary as required piano or watercolor lessons. As an engineering student, he explained, he didn't need writing.

So I got out my soapbox, climbed on top of it, and made a little speech about the importance of writing, how writing makes us reflect, how engineers who can write are more valuable than engineers who can't write.

Another student showed up at my door, and so the first student left, looking unconvinced. I couldn't blame him; in fact, I was feeling pretty skeptical, too. Yes, it's the end of the quarter, I have about 200 student papers, quiz responses, and portfolios to grade between now and next Monday. It's as good a time as any to lose faith in the process.

Why do we write? Why do we teach writing? Why do we play the piano? Why did I get up this morning?

I write because the page listens to me when no one else does.

I write to find out what I really think, so (as Flannery O'Connor once wrote in a letter) I can "see what I say."

I write because I have to. I've been writing since I was a child, writing obsessively, filling notebooks, turning thoughts into poems and short stories and essays. I've never been obsessed with anything else (horses, boys, children, teaching, faith, my father's death) without turning it into writing.

I write because when I don't write I feel itchy and crazed, as though something -- something really important -- has gotten away from me.

I write because even if it weren't mandated by the school system, both K-12 and college, even if no one ever valued me one dollar more (like the engineer who can write), even if no one thinks writing matters but me--it matters to me.

For me, writing is as important as breath. If I were paralyzed in an accident, you'd recognize me by the pencil clenched between my teeth.

Writing, for me, lies at the heart of everything else.

Once in a while, I see this happen for a student, or even for my daughter, the one who says she can't write, who says that she hates writing. When the teacher of her Interpersonal class required her to write about a relationship from which she had learned something, she was completely stumped ("I've never learned anything from a relationship," she told me). "Why don't you write about Austin?" I said to her--her first great love, her first great heartbreak. She got this look on her face, that beatific look of someone with an epiphany. She retreated to another table (we were at the library), and, in half an hour she filled a half-dozen pages--single-spaced. "Wow," she told me after we got it typed up. "I didn't know how huge that was for me."

That's one of the things writing does for me. It makes me see how huge it all is.

I'm not sure I've said exactly what I meant to say when I opened this blog window, but I'll keep thinking about it. No doubt I'll write about it again. And I think I'll write a thank you letter to my daughter's teacher.


  1. It comes as somewhat of a shock to me that a student would question the ability to write as "valued" or ever "used in real life" the way most students (no exception here) question the need to know algebra.

    I in fact used an algebraic equation recently in a real life situation... and the irony was not lost on me.

    So, pardon my punctuation, but I think this was an Excellent question. One of those that make you stop and think. Soul search even. For me this question could be answered with another : Why do we breathe?

  2. Why or why not? I wrote an answer perhaps the beginning of a great american debate answer clicked post and it was gone. That is in part why we write to create a record of our thoughts, our discoveries, of the methods we used to be successful. Perhaps at another time I will attempt to recreat the lost post.

  3. Lori -- I hope you'll repost. Dang "select profile" anyway. (I lose stuff, too.)

    End of the quarter, buried in grades, and I'm trying to remember that Zen saying, the one about confrontations being a gift.


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