P. Young: Why I Write & Other Relevant Scribblings

Dear Phoebe,
(who has not won any Scholastic Award and is scared to write).

You are in the eighth grade and you are scared to death because your scribblings have been rejected by the Scholastic Writing Competition. You are vowing never to write again because you have never dealt with this sort of failure. You can’t remember why you ever started writing in the first place. You can’t remember what the point of it all was. I’m here because I wish to remind you why you’re supposed to keep writing, before you do anything rash.

(Why I Write & Other Relevant Scribblings)
So you wish to know what my hobby horse is. You want to know why I do what I do and how I came to do it all in the first place. Well let me begin by saying that horses have never been my hobby. I am asthmatic, un-athletic and allergic to animal dander so from any early age any activities involving horses and sports were ruled out entirely for me. Having sports cut out of childhood activities dramatically alters one’s childhood experience and creates a divide in the school yard that can never be reversed. In fact, I offer up a law: Young’s Theory of the School Yard. For every school yard, S, there exists two groups of children. Group A: the rowdy, athletic bunch with bruises and high-pitched screams and in-your-face energy. Group B: the kids that sit on the wall and watch as a ball bounces by or someone falls down and cries. I belonged to Group B. I was the stout, chubby kid in recess who sought out quiet corners with my friends so that we could make up elaborate narratives about our past lives as civil war survivors, detectives and ancient Egyptians. I was the last person to be picked during gym volleyball tournaments and I have a vivid memory of failing the pull-up test as I dangled helplessly from the metal bar and swayed back and forth while my classmates watching me, utterly bewildered by my lack of arm strength.

But this history of un-athleticism can only explain so much of my love of story-telling. It cannot explain the urge I get throughout the day to simply write things down. To make sure that a thought doesn’t slip away I scribble furiously on nearby post-its, papers, hands–whatever is near to ensure that things are not forgotten. The thought of leaving a thought undocumented and letting it float away beyond our reach somewhere in our past is unacceptable. Not only is it terrifying (if you have nothing to show for your past–how can we be sure of its existence?), but it is also a waste. Look around you, there are so many sounds, so many lines etched into faces, so many exchanges and expressions and languages and gestures and so many bits of humming and vibrant life. How can it all go undocumented? We all have a natural desire to preserve. We want to preserve beauty that we see around us and we want to share it with those who are willing to stop and look and listen. But it’s hard to ensure that they will see what we see. Perhaps they might miss that extra crinkle in that woman’s face when she smiles. Perhaps they won’t see the beauty in the picture you give them. So we give the viewer a lens just to make sure they’re seeing everything clearly (we have all worn the wrong prescription from time to time). Everyone plays optometrist. When I play, I prescribe them the right story to make sure their eyesight stays intact.

I am baffled when it comes to explaining my motivations for embellishing stories. I cannot explain why I told a drunk man on the L train that my friends and I went to college in Australia and had known each other since birth. I cannot explain why I order food in different accents and give Starbuck’s different names to be written down on my coffee cups. This need for occasional embellishment is impulsive. It is not the desire to lie but rather it is the desire to tell a smaller story in order to add to my own larger, on-going narrative. I tell others stories so that when I sit down again to tell them of my life it will be just a bit more outlandish, a bit more animated, a bit more story-like. I write because historically, writing was kind to me. But I also write because I have a desire to do so–one that runs deeper than mere historical convenience.

Embellishment is crucial. It’s part of the prescription. But it’s also writer’s insurance. It protects us from criticisms that can get too personal. Writing demands a certain vulnerability but baring yourself to the world can leave you wobbly and weak-kneed. Sometimes the world knocks you down. Embellishment makes sure that you can get back up again. It makes sure you’re always hiding something–even when you’re completely bare there’s always something hidden up your sleeve: the whole truth.

It is an ideal blend of fabrication and documentation! Behold: writing. It is the right amount of cowardice without any of the malice that can often trail behind lies. Writers are gentle people. We are observers. We sit quietly, we slip in and out of crowds and conversations, we wait patiently, we keep our eyes open at all times because we are afraid if we close them for one moment we might miss something. We write to relieve ourselves of the constant narrative stream that rushes in our heads and pounds on our skulls. We write because there are times when the tongue can fail us. We write because there are things that can only be said through paper, things that flutter away and get lost in translation when spoken out loud.

It’s too grand to say that I write to introduce the world to new ideas. It’s also untrue. Most of what is written has already been written ten times over. But I write in the hopes that my lens might add a bit to the picture that is being looked at. Because there is no feeling greater than the one that a reader encounters when they see their thoughts replicated on the page of a book. Those are the moments that comfort us, the moments that remind us that we are not wandering aimlessly through space–there are others who think just like us. And we are relieved when we find them. It is a feeling of secret camaraderie and solidarity.

But writing is terrifying. It is not as clean cut as solving a math problem, it is not as esteemed as working in a research lab. It is not as selfless as volunteer work. In fact, writing is selfish. I write because I am good at it. I write because writing loves you back with an infectious, toxic love that goes to your head. But there are other times when writing takes you by the shirt collar and throws you against the wall!

Worst of all, writing is personal. Terribly personal. You prescribe your lens to your patients, the lens that you so painstakingly developed and the frames that you made from scratch and sometimes they take the prescription and crumple it up in your face, other times they take the frames and stomp on them, crushing them mercilessly with their boot heels. And you must start over. But there are moments that can make up for years of such brutality. They are small and instantaneous but they are the moments that keep us writing. They are the times when a patient comes in and looks at the prescription, tries on the frames and turns to you and says “This is just what I’ve been trying to see.”

And those are the moments that keep me writing. *

*And to all those other times when the work of a writer is cast away or goes unnoticed, all we can do is dust ourselves off and keep writing, because even though we’re completely bare as writers–there is always something hidden up our sleeves.

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