I recently finished a rather interesting book about the craft of writing. Hidden within Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction are essays. Some of them are helpful. Some of them are not so much helpful as they are a comical break from all of the wise and weathered words on writing.
Finding myself in the midst of so many words about writing, I did what I thought all of these writers would want me to do: I read and read and read until I found the words that pierced flesh and bone and found themselves nestled comfortably in my heart.
One such essay belongs to Amy Hempel, titled “That’s What Dogs Do.” The title intrigued me, begging to be understood, and I dove in excited to learn what dogs (and maybe even writers) do. The first paragraph was one of those wow kind of sections — the kind that just feels so good in the mouth and in the mind. Hempel starts by asking: “Why do I write?” What’s most interesting is how she continues, explaining, “I treat this question differently today than I would have years ago, when I started to write.”
This felt so honest to me. It wasn’t a manufactured answer but one she’d clearly mulled over time and time again. It made me think back to when I started writing. Then I skipped through several years in my mind — through years of short stories about fairies and royal turtles — because none of those were the moment I considered myself a writer. I thought about all of the melancholy poetry I wrote from seventh grade to eleventh grade, but even that didn’t feel like the real moment I became a writer. It wasn’t until Experimental Writing in my senior year of high school that I first called myself a writer. Even then, I just saw the act of writing as something to do — something I was somewhat good at. I look at my life now, and writing permeates every inch of it.
At the end of the paragraph, Hempel admits that “in fact, the answer does not require years to change; it changes throughout the course of a single day.” That statement reminded me of those really great writing days. The ones that start off difficult, trudging through the idea of filling an entire page. And then another. And another. But by the end of the day, thirty or so pages have been written, and it feels like a thousand more could be, too. Those days I write because there are too many words. Other days I write because I know I have to. In one small paragraph, Hempel made me see things that I didn’t know I knew until I read them. I think those are the best kinds of words.
Throughout her essay, Hempel really does talk about dogs. Then she reveals a line that feels like an intricate piece of origami opening itself up and revealing its beautiful insides: “…you want to do the thing that unglues you.” I think it would be dishonest to say that this somehow instructed me on the craft of writing. Instead it revealed who we are as writers.
Each time we expose words, it unhinges us just a little bit more. It’s uncomfortable sometimes. Other times it’s heartbreaking and raw and real. Yet, even in the moments when my writing seems to break me into a thousand pieces, it also puts me back together again. I think there is a great truth in Hempel’s words. Coming unglued is somehow both twisted and satisfying.
I love the moments when I know I could fall apart, but I won’t because I have the ability to put myself back together again. This made me wonder if Hempel enjoyed legos as much as I did as a child. I think the act of building things — whether it’s brick by brick or word by word — is the most satisfying thing in this world. If it takes ungluing myself to find that sense of joy, I’ll take it. And I hope, maybe, you will, too.