Why Writing Is Important…
Why write? I was on vacation the last few weeks on Deer Isle in Maine and wrote very little; I was really being present with my family and with the beautiful place I was in.
Over those weeks, I found myself wondering what it would be like to write less in my life. After all, when I write, I’m engaged in a solitary activity; I’m not as aware of my physical body or location; my mind often turns to the past or future. Most of the time, writing takes us away from the present. But at the same time, I found myself vaguely missing writing (though taking a little break also felt like a good thing).
Then, on the last morning, when I was sitting outside eating breakfast after packing up and before leaving, an eagle flew so close to me—just off shore and just a few feet above the water—that I could hear her wings flapping, like a sail moving back and forth. And I had a sudden insight about why I write, and why writing is important.
I can’t quite explain why it is that this eagle flapping her wings so close to me gave me this insight, but it did. Perhaps because the eagle was there so close and then in an instant gone, or perhaps because we were packing up to leave, I had a sense of the way in which our lives are constantly being undone and redone, the ways in which we are falling in and out of solidity, and the ways in which writing is an important part of this process for me.
Buddhist philosophy and meditation practices remind us that everything is impermanent, that what we think of as a solid self or solid identity of any kind (whether it is a person or a chair or a bird) is itself a construct. The bird was white tail, white head, black wings, and yellow pointed beak moving fast in front of me—
But language and writing help me stitch those disparate parts together. Though the bird is no longer present, I get to see her again now as I write about her and I get to share her with you.
None of us is solitary. On Deer Isle, we saw not only the eagle, but also an owl just a few feet away, hawks, a falcon, herons, beavers, a fox, countless deer, seals, many porpoises, and, of course, many other other small birds and animals. We live in a shared world with creatures that are vastly different from us, and we are all connected in countless ways to so many other beings.
Though I was largely off my computer and didn’t look at the news itself, I was also hearing and thinking a lot about the record-breaking heat, fires, and flooding around the world; the weather is reminding us again and again that what we do in one place affects everyplace else. What we do here, now, affects flooding that displaces people from their homes in Bangladesh or perhaps our neighbors or ourselves next year.
We can’t afford to imagine presence as isolated. We can’t afford to remain silent. We need language to help stitch us all together, to show us the way forward.
Writing is Important: 1) Connection Through Discovery
One of the most exciting things about writing is that it shows us ourselves and our world not the way we already know it, but anew. Sure, we can write what we already know, but most of the time, our writing will reveal to us something that we didn’t know before. That is one of the greatest gifts and joys of writing.
The poet Richard Hugo describes writing as a process of discovery well in his wonderful book The Triggering Town:
“One mark of a beginner is his impulse to push language around to make it accommodate what he has already conceived to be the truth, or, in some cases, what he has already conceived to be the form. Even Auden, clever enough at times to make music conform to truth, was fond of quoting the woman in the Forster novel who said something like, ‘How do I know what I think until I see what I’ve said.’”
The beginner writer “push[es] language around” to express the truth she believes she already knows, but as we get more experienced with writing, we come to appreciate the ways in which writing itself leads us to greater truths and discoveries. We come to know what we think through hearing what we say. Hugo continues:
“A poem [a paragraph, an essay] can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering subject, which starts the poem or “causes” the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered in the poem during the writing.”
Writing brings us from what we think we want to say to what we really want to say. It brings us deeper. We discover ourselves and our world in the process. It asks us to show up–and then show up more fully.
I see this process of discovery that writing creates as a form of courage.
In a period in which most of us suffer from almost permanent attention deficit disorder, when we are flitting from one thing to another, trying to take in the latest tweets and news from the other side of the world, writing allows us an extended form of attention; it allows us to stay with something to see what it really has to reveal to us.
The eagle flies in front of me and is gone, but I get to go back to that moment. I get to recall that eagle and connect with it more. I get to make connections between her and myself, between the ways that she can fly through the air and the ways in which I, though I am earthbound, can also fly in my mind’s eye and imagination with her.
While Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are experimenting with launching rockets (where do they think there really is to go?), writing gives us a free, easily accessible tool to explore, travel, and connect all at once. We don’t need to fly off into realms that are completely inhospitable to life to imagine other possibilities.
The sustained attention of writing allows us to be more present—to see and appreciate what is and its authentic possibilities. It allows us to have a vision. It is not surprising that so many writers are called visionaries. Through writing, we get to discover what our authentic vision is. And through rewriting and revision process, that vision continues to grow and evolve.
Writing is Important: 2) Connection with Others
Of course, writing also helps us connect with others. We get to share our thoughts, our concerns, our loves, our enthusiasms, our activities. We get to share our visions and revisions.
We get to lament and cry and mourn with one another through language and writing. We get to inspire and encourage. And we get to take action because of language.
I see the eagle fly next to me; I hear about the fires and the flooding and am aware of changes that are happening that are almost beyond our imagination; we can talk about it; we can contact our government; we can advocate. We can understand the connections between people and animals, fossil fuels and the weather. This might seem unconnected to writing, but for me, it’s all related: as I discover more and more deeply the truths that motivate me, my life shifts.
I am so grateful for all the connections I have made with others through writing—other people’s writing and my own.
WRITING PROMPTS: WHY WRITING IS IMPORTANT
- Write about one specific way that writing has helped you connect with yourself and helped you discover something new about yourself.
- Write about one specific way that writing has helped you connect with others.
- Why is writing important to you?
- What is one question that you have that has been nagging at you? I encourage you to try one of my meditations and then write about that question…see what your writing helps you discover.
And here are two poems that I want to share with you as well: a poem by Jorie Graham “The Geese” about the connections that language helps us make and Joy Harjo’s powerful “Eagle Poem” that I shared last summer when another eagle flew above me when I was visiting another part of Maine.
Please share your comments below, and please share this with anyone who might enjoy it!