[Nancy Pagh’s new creative writing guide (with readings) is shaped around the idea that creative writing exists to move us. In the excerpt below, from the chapter “Why Write?”, Pagh discusses some of the impulses and experiences that lead creative writers to put words on the page.]
Language That Is Our Own
Creative writers are sometimes stereotyped as sad and solitary figures, but writing is an expression of hope and connection. We need to communicate—to announce we’re here, we exist, we matter. We wouldn’t try to express ourselves if we felt hopeless about the possibility of connection. Even writing in private, just for ourselves, we hope to mean and understand something. No matter what subjects you choose to explore as you push your cursor across the field of the page, understand: as a new writer, you’re not signing up to suffer or to isolate yourself. You’re joining a community of people who write because we hope our words can add up to something that will surprise us, change us, move us and our readers.
The urge to write is a close relative to the urge a sculptor has to dig her hands in clay, the urge of a painter to stretch a canvas and move paint around, the urge of a composer to arrange silences between notes. We experience the urge to write for all sorts of different reasons and at different stages in life. Some of us are storytellers from the moment we can talk—we want to invent narratives before we can grip a yellow pencil. Some begin to write the first time we fall in love. New Mexico poet Jimmy Santiago Baca discovered writing poetry as an adult, in a maximum-security prison, as an alternative to violence. Emily Carr wrote in her journals to understand what she was trying to paint in the forests of British Columbia. Neurologist Oliver Sacks began writing at age fourteen: “My journals are not written for others, nor do I usually look at them myself, but they are a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.” My friend Paul started writing poems in his sixties, after his wife Susan died of cancer. Paul was a professor of philosophy, the author of many scholarly essays about medical ethics. But he felt he needed to say and discover something in his grief; although he’d never written a poem before, poetry was the shape his impressions had to make.
In Raymond Carver’s story “A Small, Good Thing,” a character named Ann experiences shock and grief over her young son. In a hospital, she shakes her head and tries to speak meaningfully with her husband and their doctor:
“No, no,” she said. “I can’t leave him here, no.” She heard herself say that and thought how unfair it was that the only words that came out were the sort of words used on TV shows where people were stunned by violent or sudden deaths. She wanted her words to be her own.
How rare it is, and yet how necessary it sometimes feels, to have the ability to use authentic language that is our own. Words surround and interrupt us almost constantly, usually written with the intent to sell, manipulate, or distract us. We learn to tune them out—and when we do listen, it’s with a healthy dose of skepticism. What we say, write, and even think tends to adopt the qualities of this bombarding, synthetic language. But when something really matters to us, we want to get outside the superficiality and sameness of that language, using words to dig someplace deep, explicit, and true. Although it is not “therapy,” creative writing is (in Richard Hugo’s words) “a slow, accumulative way of accepting one’s life as valid.”