There is a blog I use to read all the time called “Why We Write.” Writers from TV and film contributed posts trying to answer that very simple, yet incredibly difficult question. It’s one I’ve asked myself a lot over the years. I’ve never had any doubt that I have to write. It is often tortuous and often the space where I am most self-critical, but when I don’t do it, I feel like my right arm has been cut off. But that doesn’t answer why, and if you know anything about me, you know that I am obsessed with understanding why.
My favorite post in this blog series came from Hart Hanson, and in particular a passage in which he explains that:
"I write because I’m totally confused by the world. I never know what’s going on. I absolutely never know what absolutely anything absolutely means…Writing is a way for me to organize the chaos around me. I can corral bits of the sloppy world into a clean white area measuring 8 ½ x 11 inches, where it is apprehensible."
I felt an immediate kinship with that passage, and tucked it away. It was a piece of my puzzle, but not the whole thing.
My earliest life as a writer was as a penpal with my grandparents. Since the time I could hold a pencil and form my letters, I’ve written to them almost monthly. As I got older, I amassed more and more faithful penpals. To this day, a letter in the mailbox makes my heart leap. And I never read a letter haphazardly; there is ritual to it. When one arrives, it is saved for quiet moment in a quiet place, and it is read at least three times. I’ve always been able to say things to people in letters that I struggle to say aloud. And no matter what is going on in my life, writing and reading a letter is the ultimate comfort. Clue number two.
Piece three came in my early 20s. I’d been pretty sick for a very long time with three undiagnosed food allergies. And after 15 years, it wasn’t a doctor who finally put me on the path to diagnosis; it was a friend who read a story in a newspaper and said, “This woman sounds like you.” My whole life course changed that day – not because of medical tests and experts – but because of the willingness of a human to share her story. Knowing that the written word could in fact be healing was another thing I tucked away.
The final piece has come to me in the weeks that Melissa and I have been interviewing people for our “American Dream” piece. Recently, I spoke with a man who is an at-home Dad and a volunteer firefighter. When I asked him how he describes his work in a soundbite, he shared great vignettes about the reactions – ranging from condescension and criticism to celebration – that he has gotten over the years to the various jobs he has had. When speaking of the answer he gives to the question now, he said “I read my audience and try to figure out what may start or stop a conversation depending on what I want to do.”
When I heard that, I thought, “Yes, that is exactly what I do.”
I have seen pieces of myself or my family and friends in every single interview I have done. I have also been taken aback by the differences and left with so much to think about on my bus rides home from these interviews. These snippets of conversation like the one above are not Earth shattering, nor are they critical to our life trajectories or to those of the people who will see this play in the fall. But for me, the people we are interviewing are people whom I would never meet under any other circumstance – strangers who are willing to share parts of their lives with us and with you. And for me, that has as much meaning as anything does.
What all of these things have in common – making sense of the world, the comfort of letter writing, being healed by story, meeting and talking with strangers – is connection. I write because sometimes putting thoughts out into the world helps me find the people who have similar experiences. Sometimes it’s a way to find those who really, really disagree with me. I write because in some of the toughest moments of my life, seeing myself in someone else’s story has made me feel less alone. I write because reading and writing have been my greatest teachers. I write because I never get tired of learning about people, and the written word is where I feel most like an explorer. I write because it is my way to connect.
When Melissa and I embarked on our “American Dream” piece, we of course hoped that we will ultimately write an entertaining story. But the thing we hope above all else is that some piece of one of these real stories will connect with a piece of your life, the way they have with ours, whether it’s a chance to see yourself in someone else or to be surprised by something new. We hope that when you sit in the audience, you won’t feel alone in a dark theatre, but connected through shared experience and, of course, through story.