Why do we write? Why do some of us have this urge, this need to find the right words to write on that blank page?
Possible answers: To try to make sense of what we’re experiencing. To help focus ourselves. To encourage others see/experience things they might not have before. To enhance living.
These thoughts arise because I’m reading When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams, noted environmentalist, writer, and teacher. It’s a prose poem of a book by the author of the splendid Refuge, both of which are so personal that in my mind she’s a friend. This copy is from the library, but I’m going to have to buy my own.
When Terry’s mother was dying at 54, she told her daughter she would leave her all her journals, but not to look at them until after she died. When Terry could bear to take one of the bound journals from the long row on the shelf, she found it was blank. “My mother left me her journals, and all her journals were blank,” she writes. It was like a second death. When she herself turned 54, Terry wrote this book, subtitled “Fifty-four Variations on Voice,” to explore the messages contained in those blank journals.
Trying to understand, she thinks through her mother’s life, her own life, and the power of the word—its presence or absence. And she says, “To be read. To be heard. … To write requires an ego, a belief that what you say matters. Writing also requires an aching curiosity leading you to discover, uncover, what is gnawing at your bones. Words have a weight to them. How you choose to present them and to whom is a matter of style and choice. Yet the emptiness of my mother’s journals carries the weight of a question, many questions.”
I am only on page 72 of 208 pages in Terry’s book. Will she decide the empty journals say silently that we waste time by writing instead of living? Was her mother asking why anyone would go back to look at written words later instead of staying in the moment?
I think Terry, a scholar in environmental humanities at the University of Utah, will say NO. And I find that Terry’s clear clean writing makes me want to look more closely, be more thoughtful, study forever. Her writing makes me want to write.