Why do I write? The best answer, surely, must lie in the writing itself. Even when I’m brimming with ego, some part of me usually recognises, however dimly, that what I’m composing is a ‘textual being’ possessed of its own existence, its own purposes. Ego has to get out of the way. It’s the poem, not the author, essentially, that moves and speaks.
So, why does the ego do it? How is the Self implicated? Those answers and processes sit outside (or on the fringes of) consciousness. The desire to write is, for me, often a physical pressure like hunger or lust. I’ve also described it as a thick vapour that creeps under the door of your brightly-lit life, demanding that you investigate (is it wondrous mist, or alarming smoke?)... ah, but the rest is trying to get that blasted door to open! It’s work. An immense heaving and hefting of sound, using nothing more than a single lifetime’s accrued experience and the thin guy-lines of language.
Why do I write? I sometimes think a large part of the answer is my innate inability to say quite what I mean – a lifelong experience of l'esprit d'escalier. Much of the time, I don’t know what’s happening, vocally, until after it’s happened. Also, writing is my fifth element: the element of surprise. I write because I want to surprise myself. It’s a bit like starting off a joke without any punch line: when (and if) it comes, you yourself laugh – or wince – as hard as everyone else.
Many writers talk about writing in terms of being themselves, the excitement of the process, etc. I don’t always feel such emotions. Composition and editing can be, in fact, somewhat detached, or even negative, experiences. Some days, if a poem comes, I groan out loud: it means another bout of wilting work to squeeze around everything else one has to do. Other days, the words and ideas flow effortlessly into the available time, as though I were taking dictation. When it all comes together, there can be a stillness, a profound conviction, that makes the blood course like mercury. I’ve found that if I welcome the uncertainty inherent in the process, the writing happens more often.
But books. My God. The exhaustion, the endless editorial circlings, the infinity of things that can go wrong. I dread the perfectionism required, then promptly do everything to embrace it! Perhaps Freud’s general thrust is right after all? What if writers are just wounded and dysfunctional, terrified of dying? Well then, I’m proud of my kind for trying to turn all that psychological junk into something valuable.
As for divine inspiration, it’s sometimes overrated. These days, I write because... I write. Language inspires language. If I’m not using words in a heightened way, I feel bored or listless. I want to rejoin that conversation a poem starts. All literature is, to me, one vast conversation. I’m getting the same conversational kick now, (re)writing this. Even so, I do sometimes (can you believe it?) tire of hearing myself. That’s why I read. I suspect that most writers who don’t bother to read haven’t yet tired of their own voices.
Why do I write? To stay as fully alive as possible; to keep paying attention. I don’t want to be a pre-programmed tourist in my own consciousness. Literature – the genuine stuff – is one of the ways a culture stays awake. In many ways, our culture is barely conscious. As a poet, I have to ask: how many people actually read poetry – I mean, challenging poetry? Should poets give up? Gandhi reputedly said: “Everything we do is futile, but we must do it anyway”.
Today, so much of our sense of ‘why’ seems bound up with commerce. The obsession with profit-loss is ubiquitous, whether the gains and losses are financial, material, psychological or artistic. We’re witnessing a profound shrinking of culture into economy. Even poetry is falling (perhaps has always fallen?) squarely into all that. And yet, when poetry is truly itself, it subverts the monocularism of economics and utilitarianism to enact something “incorrigibly plural” (to quote Louis MacNeice). Poetry catalyses those irrational, sacred chemistries of Self. One experiences, as a reader as well as writer, a loosening of bonds.
I try to think of myself as a person who writes poetry – not a poet who consumes the Self and its experience for his art. After all, there are friends, family, the waiting piña colada... On occasions, though, the living happens through the writing – it is the writing. I lament the way our lives can get split into ‘what we are’ and ‘how we make a living’. That phrase ‘the cost of living’ carries more than a monetary sense. The (tired) enthusiast in me says: there’s only the vocation. I’m beginning to realise that one’s audience – ultimately – is an audience of one.
Why do I write? My early years were spent in a house without books. Nobody read to me. When I finally discovered books, real books, I felt like Aladdin. I don’t want that genie back in its lamp. Maybe, by writing, I’m trying to conjure something I wish I’d found on my childhood’s ornamental, spineless shelves.
Mario Petrucci RLF Forum [originally submitted: 4th March 2009; edited 30/09/14 & 30/01/15 for 2015 RLF audio] 860 words