This week, at the end of an online poetry class, our on-screen instructor asked, “Why do you write?” Then, she added: “In writing, what is your greater purpose?”
Now, I’ve been writing for myself and for publication since the mid 1970s. And, over the years, as I teach or lead narrative writing workshops, I’m sure I’ve posed that why-do-you-write question to my own writing students. But, shame on me, I had never really posed the question to myself.
Truthfully, for the rest of that day, as I tended to my usual work and deadlines, the instructor’s question niggled at me. Then, next morning, instead of penning my usual “morning pages,” I sat down to write about why, most days, for over 40 years, I sit down to write.
- Pleasure: Ever since I was a child growing up in Ireland, I took comfort in words. Song lyrics, poetry snippets, lists and conjugations of regular and irregular verbs. I mentally played with them. Chewed on them. Recited them. Tried them on for size and replaced them with something else. Nowadays, as a grown-up writer in America, it’s still a thrill or a pleasure to find les mots justes or to discover those narrative symmetries that never seem to emerge until a piece of writing is almost finished.
- Writing for mental and physical wellness: I started writing as a 14-year old school girl in Ireland. Later, as I struggled to adjust to college, I wrote in a dorm room to offset loneliness and to find comfort. Later still, as a young working singleton, I wrote to alleviate bouts of mild depression or melancholia. Back then, I didn’t know that what I was doing would get the formal name of expressive or therapeutic writing. I didn’t know that researchers would lead and then publish over 300 clinical studies on the evidence based benefits of expressive writing for our mental and physical health. These benefits range from managing depression and generalized anxiety, to improved post-treatment cancer recovery, to grief support, to reduced pain for patients with rheumatoid arthritis and enhanced self-care for healthcare providers and for family care givers. Back then, sitting inside my college dorm window, I just knew that writing made me feel better.
- Claiming my own story: As a narrative writer and essayist, there will always be that bystander who claims, “No. You’ve got the facts wrong. This is how it really happened.” Or, even worse, there will be that seemingly well-meaning person who tells us, “I think this is how you should feel about what happened to you.” Whether they admit it or not, our gas-lighting bystanders or story re-tellers have an agenda of their own. However, as writers, it’s our job to defend and advance our agenda — which is to write down our own story — and to encourage others to do the same. Truth matters, and we get at our deepest truths — even the tough ones — by writing them down.
- To get attention: These days, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the world both inside and outside our own homes and windows. Writing gives me a voice. Writing makes me feel like I matter. Writing lets me feel that I am taking back control of the things that have seemed outside of my control. I write to become and remain visible in a world where it’s easy to be (and where I have often made myself) invisible.
- Advocacy: As an immigrant and naturalized citizen, I have grown bolder in writing about 21st-century America — including
our uneven access to healthcare, and how these health inequities are deeply rooted in race, medical racism, ethnicity and social class. I also write about immigration and social class. Of course, the ability to write about or for social justice and advocacy is a privilege that’s rooted in my own race, nationality, language, current social class, education and geography. I hope I use this privilege for good.
- Comfort and spirituality: In times of crisis and pain and loss, writing is my first recourse. It creates order out of my internal and external chaos. It brings wisdom, wellness, clarification, comfort and self-knowledge. I don’t belong to any formal church or religion. So writing has become my spiritual home.
In addition to the wellness benefits, the biggest payout of expressive writing is to have that regular check-in with myself. It’s not about being a “good” or a “clever” writer. It’s not about getting a huge publisher’s advance or about being a bestselling author. There’s nobody to assign us a grade or a gold star or a certificate of completion. But for 40-plus years, writing has made me feel more complete. And that’s a high enough purpose or reason for me.