Later this week, Victor LaValle, our visiting fiction writer at Adelphi University, will be leading an open discussion on why writers write. The longer I engage in this activity, the more interested I am in the answers to this question. I know the answers I’ve given over the years, which range from, “To give voice to those who have no voice,” to “Because I have a need to,” but I’m not so certain that any one of those responses truly addresses the motivations behind my actions.
Writing is terrifying. Facing that blank page and approaching it with honesty and openness is not an activity for the faint at heart. We play these little tricks on ourselves, saying that the particular piece under construction is just a draft or an entire fiction, written for the eyes of no one but ourselves, but it doesn’t always work. It takes a great deal of courage to speak truth, even when no lives are seemingly on the line or we convince ourselves that no one is listening. The potential for an eventual reader is always present, and we always know this. We know this, and we do it anyway. We engage in an activity that gives tangible life to thought and impression. A piece of writing allows the reader to hold the thoughts of the writer, in a very literal sense. Writing gives those thoughts a body and if the time should come when that body is destroyed, the meaning contained in the writing still lives on.
The more I realize the potential impact of writing, the more in awe of it I become. There are times when I write to discover and refine my perspectives, to figure out how I truly stand on an issue. But in the last few years, my poems have increasingly taken up the task of filling in the blanks of life, of serving as a form of instruction. I wonder now if it is possible for us to write that which we truly do not know. Is there something inherent about the act of writing that allows for the entrance of spirit far beyond our individual experiences?
I think of my writing as a braid of joy, responsibility, and terror—not unlike the feeling of a first-time mother left alone with her newborn in the wilderness. I know a variety of ways of how to approach the page, but each day brings a new experience and a new revelation. Most days, I choose to focus on the joy of the act itself and turn away from the incessant demons rustling in the distance. Maybe a life of letters actually means that we are the ones that must summon the courage to coax out those demons, and pen a series of books about the process.
As a teaching poet, I want my students to walk away with a healthy respect for both the art and the craft of poetry. I want them to crave a steady diet of poetry in their lives and I want them to fortify themselves with technique and revision. They don’t know it yet, but there will come a time in their writing lives when their poetry will evolve beyond the workshop, beyond the line break, and even beyond the form. Their poetry will become more than the sum of its parts. Maybe this is what Lorca had in mind as he tried to describe to us our Duende. And today, this is why I write: to evolve into the woman I was not yet yesterday, to offer cavernous entrances for the reader between my lines, and to share those new worlds with honesty and reverence.
(In Memoriam: Lucille Clifton, 1936-2010)
Jacqueline Jones LaMon is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College, UCLA School of Law, and Indiana University Bloomington, where she earned her MFA in Poetry. A graduate fellow of Cave Canem, her first poetry collection, Gravity, U.S.A., received the Quercus Review Press Poetry Series Book Award. Her first novel, In the Arms of One Who Loves Me, was published by One World/Ballantine Books. She is Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Adelphi University, where she teaches poetry, literature, and pedagogy.