Essay

Why Do I Write?

By November 14, 2011 One Comment
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I was supposed to answer the question “Why do I write?” on a page you can find by clicking on “The 12” button atop this page.  Instead of finding my answer to that question there, you will see that I chose to post, in the words of Ralphie in A Christmas Story, “a crummy commercial” for my blog in that space. Sorry.  I labor under the shameless delusion that self-promotion will lead to publishing contracts and international renown.  

In the meantime, here’s why I write: I write because words are important.  And I write because it is the best way I know of to tell the truth of what it’s like to be me.

In Frederick Buechner’s oft-overlooked masterpiece The Final Beast, one of the characters, a writer, says, “Words are my undoing. . . .My undoing, literally. . . .My unraveling.  Like a golf ball when you take the cover off – all those miles and miles of rubbery string.  I’ve been reeling words out of my gut for years, I suppose to find out one day what there is at the middle of me.” 

I know how that feels.  I go through life trying to articulate the words that define what there is at the middle of me.  A hazard that accompanies my compulsion is that how others use words rankles and depresses me. 

For example: an email was forwarded to me announcing the death of someone I knew of but didn’t really know.  I should have felt some measure of sadness, except the announcement didn’t sound sad.  I wasn’t even sure the man had actually died.  The man’s son said it was his “privilege” to announce his father had “graduated,” “gone home,” “claimed his treasure” and “won his last battle.”  It goes on from there, imagining the man “beaming in gratitude and thanksgiving as he rolls up his sleeves and asks for an assignment while kneeling in worship.” There’s quite a bit more, but you get the point.  Be it far from me to suggest how this family should grieve.  I’ll just say this doesn’t work for me.  It doesn’t work for me because it doesn’t sound like grief. I want to tell this well-intentioned Christian family that we don’t get to celebrate Easter without going through Lent with Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday first.  There aren’t any shortcuts.  I want them not to be afraid to tell the whole truth about what the death of their beloved relative feels like.  We won’t find them lacking faith or hope if they say they are sad. Tell the truth!

I’m afraid I’m turning into a curmudgeonly cross between Walter Matthau and Andy Rooney with a little H. L. Mencken thrown in for kicks and giggles. There’s a banner around the corner outside of a Catholic school announcing their 60th anniversary of “teaching as Jesus taught.”  It’s the tiny word “as” that trips me up.  I could live with “what,” I could live with “60 years of teaching what Jesus taught,” but “as”?  I can’t imagine the nuns as first-century itinerant rabbis using agricultural imagery to tell stories.  I imagine them teaching spelling and math and grammar to kids in uniforms instead.  I want this school not to be afraid to tell us what goes on inside their walls.

And why does it bug me that my son “won” an auction?  Come on. What did he win? He “won” the chance to spend the most money on something other people decided to pass on.  An argument can be made that he lost the auction.

I should let things like this slide off my back, but a credit card offer came in the mail saying I had been “pre-selected.”  What in the world is that supposed to mean?  And why did it make me think of the endless rabbit trails and fog banks of getting into a discussion about double predestination, free-will and election? Tell me the truth about your credit card. Don’t send me something that makes me start contemplating credit cards as an irrefutable proof of total depravity.

I know, I know, I should lighten up.  But I can’t.  I remember all too well that Buechner wrote a book called Telling the Truth.  What a concept!  Tell the truth — that’s all I want to do as a writer.  Is it too much to ask others to do the same? 

Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is the Executive Vice President of Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

One Comment

  • Love that Buechner quote; rather, his character's quote.

    My husband's niece, a graduate student in sociology, was visiting this week for Thanksgiving and helping me understand her studies. She said people often do research on a topic close to home and that tendency, she says, is nicknamed, "me-search."

    I told her that writers do that, too, and it's called "memoir," which also has "me" in it. But as I thought about the Buechner quote, I wonder if all writing–all meaningful writing, fiction or nonfiction, poetry or memoir–is the unraveling of self to see what's deep inside?

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