I Don’t Write Because I Need To

Today’s guest post is brought to you by David Nilsen, someone who’s blog I recently discovered and have come to enjoy quite a bit (although I don’t agree with his certainty that he will “never be a famous author”).

Today he writes about writing, and being known.

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I’m about to type something no self-respecting artsy-fartsy writer is ever supposed to say:

I don’t write because I need to.

There, I said it.

Now that all the English majors who think they’re destined to reinvent poetry as we know it have stopped reading, allow me to spend some time qualifying that very un-writerly statement.

In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke says this to his young pupil:

“Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all–ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.”

Well, I don’t have to write. And neither do you.

Now, hear me on this, because writing is central to my life, and yes, there are certainly ways in which I would no longer be me if I were forbidden to write. I have read Rilke’s words many times and affirm them for what they are. What I am getting at today is not that the motivations for writing are unnecessary to me or you, but that our medium of words is just one possible outlet for a deeper, more central need.

When we write we capture in words something that existed only in feeling before that moment, to form sentience from sentiment. Art, ultimately, is communication dressed up and modeled. When we read a writer who has done her job in sharing herself we close our eyes and whisper I know, me too.  The writer who shares nothing, trapping beauty in a locked journal, is just talking to herself. At some point what we have written must be shared if both the reader and the writer are to gain from it.

And so I do not write because I need to write per se. I write because I need to express myself to witnesses, because as a human being I was created to be known, to communicate and be understood, and writing happens to be the way I’ve been given to do that. It was the tool that felt right in my hand when my personality was taking shape in my teen years. It could as easily have been music, or public speaking, or painting. But I am grateful it was writing.

We have a deep and abiding need to know and be known. We require witnesses to our existence, communion in our solitude, love to break the darkness that can overwhelm us. These things are not optional.

I don’t have to write, but I do have to know and be known. And I’ve found no better way for me to attain that than writing. Language is how I best love and best know love.

So I guess this is all a way of saying that yeah, I need to write, but there’s a sense in which it’s just the rope ladder that gets me into the tree house, to find communion, to know and be known. There are others. Yours might be another art medium, or you might just be better at making friends than I am and your favorite thing is football. Either way, we’re after the same thing.

I love beauty, to be sure. And writing satisfies that need too. But at the deepest level, writing is communication, and communication is relationship. Have you read me? Then in a way, you know me. We’ve talked; we’ve met. And if there’s a time when I cannot write, I’ll still know I’ve been understood.

And that, friends, is something I do need.

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The winner of last month’s contest to guess the first warm day here in Paradise is Brandon Smucker. If the last name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s my cousin. He’s pretty smart – it runs in the family.

Tune in tomorrow for the next installment of the “choose your own adventure” story I’ve been writing, where you get to decide the direction of the story each week. You can catch up on the story HERE.

8 Replies to “I Don’t Write Because I Need To”

  1. Hi David, nice to meet you here.

    I totally get this … you are understood.

    Also, sometimes when I hear other writers talk about ‘needing’ to write, they can’t help themselves, they just ‘need’ to write … I wonder if I really am a writer, because while writing can help me know what I am thinking and I like to see a finished piece of writing, I don’t always like the process of writing and I don’t feel a strong ‘need’ to … but like you said,”Language is how I best love and best know love.”

    1. Thanks for reading, Janet.

      I think sometimes writers, especially those who are not professionally established (and I am certainly not at all), use this terminology because it makes them feel validated as writers. I have said as much before, and I know partially it was to assure myself that I was indeed a writer even though I had nothing substantial to prove it.

      Yeah, I “need” to write in a sense, but it’s not an end unto itself.

  2. Being known – this is a need that I think we all experience. When someone knows me, deeply and truly, and still accepts me? There is just nothing quite like that. When that acceptance comes through my writing (or in spite of my writing, some days!), it’s a whole other level, because I feel like it’s setting myself out there just a little bit more.

    Great post!

  3. When I read it is like there is this extra person in my head. I develop relationships with the author or the character in ways I don’t get to in real life. This is either because we haven’t met, or we will never meet, or the writer is dead, or I am too self conscience and unwilling to share my inner most thoughts. It works the same when I write. I do not have to try to please anyone, because the only thing that I experience is myself and not the reader.

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