Why do you write?
—Sigrid Nunez, New York City
Sigrid, there are so many ways I can answer this question, and perhaps that initial sense of where do I even start? may be what you’re after, given your interest in writers’ responses to this question and in the way, as you’ve said, “language reflects how we think and feel about the world.” I want to go back to the beginnings on this, to a child whose sense of self was interwoven with books and their function as a passport to life.
I’ve often told people that I grew up in a very small town that had no other little girls. That’s close to the truth if I select the ages five to ten and don’t count the few girls, older or younger, who were occasionally in and out of my orbit. I lived mostly in the world I shared with my dolls and, even more, in the books that came into my life. The first book that was mine alone, and that I inscribed with my first letters, was When We Were Very Young by A. A. Milne. As my six-year-old brother had been given Milne’s Now We Are Six, I assumed that, since I was two years younger, being very young meant being four, which shows my early belief in the ability of books and their words to be an immediate, literal part of my life. Books, even just as physical objects, were magical to me. My parents read me Little Golden Books, which I loved, including the word golden, but the day I graduated to Junior Books felt like a rite of passage. I was no longer very young; I was beginning to grow older. That change in book format was the proof—the elongated pages, the increase in the number of words over pictures, their larger role in painting the world of the story.
My family moved several times in my childhood—Illinois to Indiana to Missouri to Ohio to Kentucky to Minnesota—once, almost all the way west to Washington—and books stayed my constant wherever I was the new girl. My imaginative life went with me. I didn’t write except for school assignments, but I found that teachers often asked me to read those assignments out loud. That always made me both pleased and apprehensive, but when my sixth grade teacher said I would probably become a writer, I was startled and privately disagreed. The idea of writing a whole book seemed nearly impossible, and so did the idea I could ask for the attention of readers with an actual book. Yet in three years something happened—what I have no memory of—and when I was a freshman in high school and without really deciding, I knew writing was what I was going to do.
In college, my idea of writing developed a romantic gloss. I was very aware of writers who had become famous as people, as well as for their work, particularly the American ex-patriates who had lived and worked in Paris in the 1920s. I wondered if that fame was part of being a real writer, every book publication noted as a major event, every excursion to a notable watering place part of the package. I don’t know that it attracted me as an idea, but it did make me curious and was part of my thinking at a time when I was not a writer at all. I remember a college friend questioning that I was going to be a writer, telling me a friend of hers from high school not only intended to write; he was consumed with actually writing. My lack of writing much of anything more than required papers weighed on me as I made my way through courses that, in my idiosyncratic view, seemed about things a writer should know.
During my senior year in college, though I was dubious about their value, I took two creative writing courses, one with John Hawkes, a second with Park Honan. The course with John Hawkes made me uneasy. His particular passion for writing came from a different sensibility than mine, though I admired the lyricism of much of his writing, something that has always drawn me to writers. I didn’t impress him at all with my writing, though he told me something that I didn’t know and didn’t forget, that I had an eye for detail (“the noisy bacon shrinks in the pan,” “the sled raked skittishly down the hill”). On the other hand, Park Honan gave me a wild hope for he called a story I wrote easily the best thing that had come from the class that semester.
After college and during graduate school in history and for many of the years that followed, I stopped telling people I was a would-be writer and went underground trying to become an actual one. Perhaps from the course with John Hawkes, I’d adopted the idea that all work needs to be experimental and highly original to be good, and my writing efforts reflected just how badly I could write with that as the controlling view. I struggled with a novel that had such a bizarre idea as its premise that I’m not even sure what it was. Yet even in that dreadful endeavor, there were a few sentences and phrases that felt truly mine, enough so that I later reclaimed them in new work.
It was not until my daughter was a baby that I started a project (the ancestor of Time Stamp) that began to come together for me as a writer, particularly as I began to learn the important dailiness of work. Though I kept what I was doing to myself for a long time, that period marks the start of the time when I knew why I write.
So here, finally, is the short answer to the question. While the language of writing does reflect how I think and feel about the world, I write because the charge and exactitude make me feel like myself. They have since I was very young.