Why do we do what we do? It’s usually pretty easy to answer what we’re doing (I’m typing) or how we’re doing it (I’m using a keyboard). But why? Why type these words? Why type them right now?
Of course, “why” can probe deeper: Why live there? Why work that job?
And deeper: Why stay in this relationship? Why do people suffer?
“Why” is hard enough to answer when we ask it of ourselves, but it’s perhaps hardest to answer for another person. Has a child ever asked you one of the hard ones, like “why is the sky blue?” From the mouths of babes, “why?” is the question that can drive parents (and aunties) batty. But that’s because it’s such a good question—often impossible to answer in any definite way. Ask “why?” too often, and you might be swamped with uncertainty. Ask it too little, and you might struggle to find meaning in life.
But asking “why” is worth it. It helps us get to the heart of things. People are weighing in on the “why” question in fascinating ways.
And I’ve found that “why” is a question often posed of creative hobbies or lifestyles. Why make music? Why act? Why dance?
Writers, too, have long been posed this question. In typical writer-ey fashion, writers have long loved to respond…you guessed it…in writing (here are a sample of responses: George Orwell, Joan Didion and lots of other people). One of my favorite authors, Terry Tempest Williams, also has a well-known short essay called “Why I Write.” I re-read it last week over breakfast. By the time I stepped on the bus to go to work, a long (but incomplete) list of my own motives for writing was brewing:
I write because I have always loved to tell stories. I write for the cadence of vowels and the rhythm of syllables and the hard stops. I write for the streams in my mind. I write in spite of my job title, “writer.”
I write because it gives me something to walk about. I write for the comfort of revision. I write for the torture of revision. I write for the chance to put something together tight. I write because the world needs good ambassadors from Wisconsin. I write in the face of jargon. I write in the face of every bad habit I know I will fall into. I write to break preposition rules. I write to set ideas like gelatin. I write to go somewhere. I write to know somewhere. I write because I might never know what Norman Maclean meant when he said all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. I write because I might maybe know what he meant. I write because all I can write is about what I might maybe know. I write because it scares off the men who aren’t worth it. I write because it scares me. I write to use the em dash—listen. I write because women and water and words are sisters. I write to discover my place. I write because it kicks my ass. I write because maybe Aaron Rodgers will notice. I write because it helps me see straight ahead. I write because it helps me stand firm on this ground. I write because I know I should tell the damn truth. I write because I’m afraid to tell the truth. I write, anyway.
Why do you do what you do? And why not make a list about it, even if it’s just in your mind? Streaming answers to the “why” question is a fascinating, motivating way to reconnect with what you love about any passion… Why teach? Why serve? Why parent?