When I was young, I didn’t master the mechanics of writing until my mother sat down with me one evening and showed me how to compose a short piece for my English class. I had to make an argument for a position on a controversial matter, which involved citing the opposing points and refuting them. She taught me how to organize my thoughts, and I got an A-. As a result, I not only felt smarter than I had a right to feel, but I had, for the first time, the confidence to participate in an intellectual debate. It was exhilarating.
Although I’m much older, I still experience the exhilaration. But there is more. I find writing necessary for pragmatic reasons. I write to solve problems: personal and interpersonal, abstract and concrete. Composition involves discipline, the type of discipline that enables me to think about these matters. There are questions I want to answer: What should I do after I retire? Do my activities contribute to social justice? What is social justice? What did a dream I had last night mean?
I also write to reflect. While I often seek to solve a puzzle, there are times I want to contemplate an idea, event or person. Writing is a means for grappling with questions without definitive answers such as how to prepare for death or what is the nature of love. And it allows me to deliberate on the insights of wise people and how their wisdom affects me and others; for instance, exploring whether Middlemarch can shed light on modern dilemmas.
And there is an aesthetic appeal to writing, as well. I like to read words that motivate or inspire. When I was twenty, I read a publicity pamphlet written by a young antipoverty worker in the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program. There was no mention of accomplishments; he didn’t organize a grassroots movement for improved economic or political conditions. He wrote about the people he encountered on a Native American reservation in Wyoming. He didn’t change their lives, but they changed his. It was a simple story. And it was compelling. A well-known journalist once said that a person who can write with clarity, brevity and wit will be a lightning rod. I write because I want to be a lightning rod.