On Not Having an Answer

Why do you write? (That is, why not do something useful instead?)”—Margaret Atwood, “Nine Beginnings.”

I had a professor once who began his lecture with a simple question: Why are you here?
Out of the whole world, every conceivable option available to you, you woke up this morning and made the choice to come here. Why?

(I don’t remember what the rest of that lecture was about, but I remember its beginning. Was it a waste? Why didn’t I do something “useful” instead?)

Then just last week, I was sitting in lecture, half paying attention to something about disguise and social boundaries in Shakespeare, when the guy in front of me lifted up his hand to twirl his pen, revealing his palm. Written there in thick sharpie letters across his skin were the words: Why are you here?

I wished the universe would stop asking me this question, because I don’t know the answer. Then the universe just had to make it even more confusing, and start asking  an entirely different yet somehow entirely similar question: Why do you write? Out of the whole world, every conceivable option available to you, you woke up this morning and began to write. Why?

Thank you, Margaret Atwood, for not having an answer. Or rather, for having many. In Lit studies, I’m often advised that a topic is not worth exploring if it only has one answer. If you can only think of one explanation, don’t even bother. If this is indeed the case, then writing must be a topic that deserves absolutely immense exploration. The only problem is, no answer seems good enough, or adequately supported enough, or just right enough.

I can think of a thousand answers to why I write, but none of them sound like an answer. They sound constructed, fake and cliché, even— a bunch of nonsense about feelings and humanity and the story of time and who even knows what else. So, when Atwood said that her beginnings felt “too falsely wise,” I heard a chorus of angels sing in appreciation. All of my discomfort with the big questions made a little more sense. Why do you write and why are you here—these questions are just positively begging for some kind of imparted wisdom, of which I certainly have none. Words don’t have to be wise, writing about writing doesn’t have to be wise; it can be very, very confused. I liked that when I finished reading “Nine Beginnings,” I didn’t know why Margaret Atwood wrote. I didn’t feel any closure, and I didn’t feel any wiser, really. I think that big questions don’t have one answer, or nine answers. But I suppose it is still useful to think about such things.

“Why do you write? (That is, why not do something useful instead?)”

Why do I write? You might as well ask me why I’m here; you’ll get the same answer.


One thought to “On Not Having an Answer”

  1. As common a question or term as this is, it really is a great and thought provoking question when you take the time to sit down and think about it, and it makes for an especially great blog post as well. I think one of the best aspects of writing a response to a question like this is in many ways it’s almost like an interactive conversation with yourself, and in a lot of ways can produce an even better answer o the question itself. At the same time, I think that can be said about a lot of writing, in that it’s an interactive process, and that the more you can engage in a conversation with the work, I’ve found it to be more beneficial, and produce a better end product. That’s what I’ve typically found with my work, and that really seems to be the case here. Thanks for sharing!

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