Behind every project is a motivation. I believe you should know why you do the things you do. So as I was creating this blog, I decided to start with asking myself this existential question: why do I write?
It’s a hard one to answer. Most times, when people answer such existential questions, they compare their lives before and after. They describe a turning point, a moment of change that catalysed their decision. But, for me, I’ve never known life without writing. There is no ‘before’. Only a ‘now’ – and a continuing.
From when I first started to discover that certain shapes made certain sounds, and little five-year-old me could scratch out those shapes on paper all by myself, I started to record my world. What I had eaten for breakfast: cereal, where I had gone to play that day: Clement’s house.
I spent my free time dreaming up story beginnings that had no end, and after faithfully inscribing them on paper scraps, stuffed them into my overflowing folder of “Vivienne’s stories”. I wanted to be an author, I told my mom.
Join a writing competition, she encouraged, and so I entered my best piece, “My Life as a Young Pencil.” My first real foray into the writer’s world ended with disappointment, however, and my first-grade teacher telling me that I was only seven so I had a lot of time to develop as a writer. Her advice was to just keep writing.
My writing then migrated to the pages of my journals and through the angst of the teenage years, it was the only space I could be fully me. There was no pressure to say things that would improve my social standing, no friends who would evaluate my thoughts, no need to filter my ill-formed, nascent ideas.
When I felt darkness descending like a heavy weight, ready to strangle me, I would run to my walk-in closet armed with my journal and pen. This was where I would then wrestle with the dark monsters, drawing them out of their hiding places and pinning them helpless to the ground. What was intangible was now tangible, captured in little black markings running over light blue lines – plain and unthreatening, cowering at me and my mighty pen.
If the darkness was veering towards sadness, I would write until the sadness swelled and finally bubbled out in heaving sobs. I would heave every ounce of sadness out of my body until I felt light again. People don’t like to cry because they say it makes you look weak. But, for me, crying was what made me strong. The tears were me coming face to face with my darkness, being willing to feel the emotions without holding back, and then having the courage to stand up and do it all over again.
Writing saved my life. It always remained a private endeavour, however. I despised writing anything on Facebook, or any such public domain. It was my saviour, but also my baby, one that I held close like how a mother holds her newborn on the first day, unwilling to let it go into the hands of a stranger.
My first blog was more of an online journal. No one knew about it except me and a few select friends, to whom I would send certain pieces once finished. It was an amorphous collection of musings, recipes, youtube clips, really anything that inspired me. When I moved to China, I started a second with the purpose of keeping my supporters up to date. And as I wrote and received replies, I discovered that my writing was in fact encouraging others. It wasn’t the boasting and comparing vicious cycle I always shied away from, but it was me simply following in the footsteps of Jesus’ closest disciples: being an eyewitness to the miracles around me and documenting them.
“Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it,” was the command given to Habakkuk. We bear witness to His goodness – the things we know are true – then we write it down so that others may run. Wasn’t that how the whole Christian tradition was founded? Eyewitnesses being diligent to write down what they saw, the words they heard from their teacher – words we would cling to centuries later and recite in prayers and creeds all over the globe. With no foresight that they were writing the top bestseller in all of human history, they were simply being faithful to the command in Habakkuk: to write.
So, I step forward with holy fear and trepidation into the world of writing in the public eye. I write because that is what I have always known how to do. I write because it saved my life. I write to be an eyewitness to the goodness of God. I write that others may run.
Here I go.
I look into my students’ faces and they look solemnly back at me. “So why does our writing matter, again?” they ask. Because of the spirit, I say. Because of the heart. Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird