Why I Write. Thoughts on Writing in the Age of Relentless Despair

Photo by Raychel Sanner on Pexels.com

At the beginning of 2022, I decided I would write one blog post every week for the whole year. I set aside Friday mornings for this task, and around Wednesday, I start thinking about what this week’s blog post will be about. I play around with two, maybe three ideas, but I don’t make my decision until Friday morning when I sit down to write.

This week was no different. Next to me, I have a pile of books that I have read and that I want to discuss; it was only a matter of which book I would choose. But as I sat down, everything that has happened over the past weeks and months (years!) washed over me. All the ideas that I had been playing around with seemed futile and nonsensical. And why would anyone care about what I have to say, anyway?

It was the children of Uvalde, Texas. 19 children around the age of 10, their lives cut short for no reason, and those who can do something to stop it refuse to act. The small towns of Texas resonate with me on a different level than other small towns. When I was a child, my family traveled to Texas several times for family vacations. Because of my father’s job, these vacations were the few times when the whole family did something together.

On these vacations, we would spend two or three weeks driving around the hill countries, badlands, and deserts of Texas, stopping in the small towns that we passed along the way. I was too young to remember exactly where we went, but sometimes names of places resonate with me when I hear them, and the echo inside me always speaks back to me in my father’s voice. Eagle Pass, Laredo, Texas City, Luckenbach, Bandera, Langtrey, Uvalde.

And even though it feels futile to write a blog post this week, I sat down and did it anyway. Why? Because that is what I do. I write. As Joan Didion said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Arguably, this is her most famous quote, sometimes truncated, sometimes paraphrased, but I believe it is famous because it is true.

A writer writes, that is what makes a writer a writer. It is not the publishing contract or the byline that makes you a writer, nor is it the spinning rolls of paper at a printer’s plant or the code that creates a pdf file. No, it is the act of writing that makes a writer a writer.

Writers write for many reasons, but I think that at the core, we write for the same reasons that Didion wrote: We write to understand. And even though writers write about many different things, I believe that the thing we try and understand with all the things that we write is only one: Ourselves.

To be a writer is to be an observer. To be a writer is to be a person who reacts to their surroundings in such a way that it affects them emotionally.

A writer observes the world and reacts to what they see. This reaction triggers an emotional response and a desire to understand. The response and the desire create a need for release. The release manifests itself in the act of writing. Because, writing is an emotional act, an act that is all-consuming.

Gloria Anzaldúa calls writing “a sensuous act” that “produces anxiety” and “psychic unrest” before the act is committed and the writing complete. “To write, to be a writer,” she says, “I have to trust and believe in myself as a speaker, as a voice … .” A voice for whom? For ourselves.

Didion and Anzaldúa spoke about their personal reasons for writing, and in doing so, they put into words what the rest of us feel. Through the act of speaking in our own voice to express our need to understand, we end up speaking for others.

So, as I sat down to write this week’s blog post, I threw all my ideas to the side. Instead, I started typing in the blank box that my blog platform provides without knowing where I was going or what words would come out. I only knew I needed to say something, but I did not know what. The post that you have just read is what came out of my mind and my heart, through the movements of my fingertips, this Friday morning on May 27, 2022.

I wrote because I felt despair at the world. Too many people are dying for reasons that can be prevented. Mass shootings, war, pandemics and epidemics, climate change. I wrote because I needed to understand why today I felt this despair after nearly three years of sadness and chaos.

Now, I understand why I needed to write what I have written. It was the children of Uvalde. May their memories be a blessing, and may they be the last children to have their lives cut short in this way.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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How to Extract a Cactus Needle from Your Skin, Or On the Mental Health Benefits of Keeping a Diary.

When the world shut down in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided to start keeping a diary. I wanted to chronicle what was happening because it felt as if we were living through a historic moment.

As a historian, I am hesitant to declare anything happening in the now to be of historic importance. After all, history is what we decide it to be, and that decision isn’t made until decades after the fact when we can tell how the repercussions of an event played out (or didn’t play out, which means that the event will not be part of history).

Moleskin diary with a Ballograf mechanical pencil 0.5 and an eraser. Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

Well aware of the fact that I am not a person whose diary will be read and written about generations from now, I still felt a need to document my view of events for posterity, and also for myself. Little did I know that not only would I go on to chronicle events that took the entire world on a roller coaster ride seldom experienced, but keeping a diary has proved beneficial to my mental health.

I titled my diary “Corona Journal” (Coronadagbok) because my original intention was to chronicle the COVID-19 pandemic. The first couple of months are focused almost entirely on that.

The first entry of the diary is on March 13, 2020. It reads:

“On March 10, Broward County issued a state of emergency. On March 13, the city of Deerfield Beach and President Trump did the same. Lectures at FIU cancelled from March 12 to April 4. I am now teaching the online content available on Canvas. Spent the afternoon at Publix, Target, and Latinos to bunker for at least ten days of social distancing. New cases and deaths are reported every day. At least 15 known cases in Broward. The spread is increasing quickly. Reliable public information is hard to find.”

I started the diary on the blank pages at the back of my Passion Planner. The first few weeks are written spaciously. The writing is large, the spacing between the lines generous. On May 27 I ran out of pages, and I moved on to the large-size Moleskine notebooks I have used ever since. On the last page of the Passion Planner, the writing is small, cramped. I can tell that the pressure on the pen is heavier here than in March. When I finished for that day, I had spilled over onto the fly leaf.

From the first day of keeping my diary, I made it into a nightly routine to sit down and write before I go to bed. I still maintain that routine, and it has changed my life.

Whenever writers get together, sooner or later we end up asking each other, why do we write? Why do we do what we do? More writers than you can imagine answer with a simple sentence: Because we have to.

What that sentence means is that we have no choice in the matter. There are words and thoughts inside us that need to come out. If someone will ever read what we write is beside the point; we write anyway.

Photo by Z Crowe on Pexels.com

If I don’t write I feel a physical discomfort. Until very recently, I thought I was alone in feeling this way. Then I read Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera where she says that not writing makes her physically ill and compares it to a cactus needle getting caught in her skin: It bothers you until you poke at it enough to make it come out. Then you feel relief. Until the next needle gets caught.

Sitting down with my diary every night is me plucking the cactus needle of the day from my skin. Because not only do I write because I have to, I am also one of those people whose self-esteem is connected to my achievements. When I write down what happened during the day, I see on the page that even on a day when it feels as if I achieved nothing, I always achieved something.

Writing a diary every night for the past two years has decreased my stress, my anxiety, and the physical discomfort I get from not writing. And, it has decreased my need to express myself on social media, which in turns leads to even less stress and anxiety. Instead of searching for a release on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, I make sense of my thoughts and the world in my diary.

I started my diary with the intention of chronicling the pandemic. My original idea was to stop writing when the pandemic ended. Last night, my diary entry began as it always does nowadays, with recording the daily deaths and cases of COVID-19 as reported by Johns Hopkins, and then I went on to talk about my day.

Contrary to what we are told, the pandemic is not over, but I already know that once it subsides, I will continue writing in my diary every night. Because I have to.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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