Creating Constellations: On Mark Edmundson’s Why Write?

by Geoff Watkinson

I was interviewing for a part-time editor position at a small newspaper the other day when, about 20 minutes in, the publisher asked, “Why write? Why do you do it?” Immediately, I said, “Obsession. I find things I’m curious about and I get obsessed.”

That question–“why do you write?”–is something I’ve asked myself, and something I’ve been asked, countless times over the years. Why do I do it? I don’t have to write anymore. Somehow, I find myself with a university teaching gig and a book of personal essays on the way with a small press. How, exactly, those opportunities fell into my lap is baffling. I worked hard for years and then, suddenly, here I am.

Why don’t I just stop? After all, most of the time writing isn’t sitting down for a couple of hours and then, suddenly, there is an essay. It’s often painful, frustrating, and difficult—the process dragging on. But the satisfaction that comes after having done it is incomparable.

Mark Edmundson explores these questions in his 2016 book, Why Write: A Master Class on the Art of Writing and Why it Matters. “Part of the dignity of writing,” Edmundson writes, “is that it allows men and women to take on tasks that may seem overwhelming and then do their best knowing that what’s being attempted can’t but end with some measure of failure” (87). There is no perfection, just a perfect attempt. The word essay, after all, comes from the Latin, meaning an attempt or effort.

In his introduction, Edmundson writes, “Writing is thinking; thinking is writing” (xvii). When I get obsessed with an idea—mortality, say, or creativity, or the natural world—I want to explore exactly how I think and feel about it. I want to challenge my thinking.

Edmundson’s book is divided into five sections: Getting Started, The New Writer, Perils and Pleasures, Pleasures and Perils, and The Writer’s Wisdom. The beauty of the book is its fusion of memoir, instruction, and examination. If you write, you identify. If you write, you learn. And regardless of whether you write, you are entertained.

Of his early writing life, Edmundson writes: “And from time to time I’d look down as if from a great height and say to myself, “I’m writing. I’m writing. I am writing!” It was like learning to ride a bike. It was like nailing three pointers one after the next from the corner. It was like getting the hang of sex—if one ever gets the hang of sex. It was like magic” (11). That magic reminds me of being on the golf course. I’ve never been very good, even though I grew up around the game. But what keeps me going back to it is that moment of hitting a perfect shot—of the ball rolling towards the pin. Magic.

In the Chapter, “To Have Written,” Edmundson writes that there are “…four troubling horsemen that ride through the beginning writer’s thoughts, offering motivation for his quest. There is writing to have written, which is to say writing to achieve fame. There is writing for sex and erotic ascendancy. There is writing for cash…And finally there is writing for revenge” (31). When I decided that I was going to be a writer, sometime around age 21, I was motivated by horseman one (writing for fame), no doubt, and horseman two (sex), of course. But over the last dozen years, that’s evolved. Fame seems overrated and I don’t think anyone has ever slept with me because of my writing.

It’s no surprise that for the first few years I wrote, all I attempted to write about was myself and how I was feeling. I was an egomaniac with an inferiority complex. Like Edmundson, I was also “…simply afraid that my stuff would be terrible. I was afraid that I’d see that I had no talent. I was afraid that deprived of my writing ambition I’d have no other ambition remaining and be left wandering in the void” (12). The writing was terrible. But the tens of thousands of words that I wrote were the foundation for writing something that wasn’t quite as terrible.

Resilience, I have learned, is possibly the most important attribute in a writer. I just keep writing. Edmundson writes: “Emerson talks about how young men sitting in libraries read the works of the greats who have come before them and cower at their originality and force. What they forget is that those great authors were once young men sitting in libraries themselves. But they did not do much cowering—or if they did, they overcame it in time” (87). Fear is my number one offender. Fear has kept me from fully immersing myself in a biography project that requires extensive archival research, interviewing, and traveling. I put my foot in the water of exploration, but I have yet to dive in. Fear.

Pushing through that fear is one of the most satisfying intellectual pursuits that I can think of. “A real writer,” Edmundson writes, “can say more, and the more makes his life something singular and true and more worth living than it would be if he remained mute, or spoke only in generalities and echoes” (82).

In his second to last chapter, Edmundson writes: “But I think I’m right to believe that writing over a lifetime creates something of an intellectual/spiritual biography. You start one place, with your first published work or at least the first work of yours that gives you pleasure and satisfaction. Then you begin to move. You go from point to point, dot to dot. And partway through, your points—which may glow with starlight, if only to you—begin to form a constellation, though a constellation of a private sort, most probably” (243). It’s that constellation that I’m after. To have felt that I’ve lived a life of pursuit. Of purpose. Of curiosity.

Our writings, Edmundson writes, “…carve our tombstones; they are our elegies. Or, maybe a better analogy (and surely a more optimistic one): our writings create constellations. They are the way we look back (or look up) and see that we have had a life” (242). I write because I want that life. It’s that simple.

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