I've been thinking about the storytelling process recently -- and why some of us are driven to make the telling of stories (on paper, on canvas, on the stage, etc.) the central work of our lives. What's behind this compulsion? Beyond issues of skill, craft, and earning a living, what is it we have to say? Every so often, in different stages of my life, I ask myself once again: Why am I a writer; why am I a painter; what is it I am trying to communicate? I can't reply on past answers to those questions, because the answers change as I age and change. Sometimes I'm clear and passionate about why it is I do the work I do. Other times, it is only by engaging with the work itself that I come to understand my own mind -- as thoughts, feelings, and concerns I didn't even know I had emerge in the creative process.
Yesterday I was in a large bookstore, which is generally one of my favorite places to be -- and instead of feeling thrilled by all the choices around me, I felt suddenly depressed by all those shiny new books. So many authors, so many dreams, so many voices clamoring to be heard. What need had anyone of mine? I thought, dispirited. Later, while I was making supper, I turned on Ellen Kushner's radio program Sound & Spirit for company. I've only recently discovered how many of the Sound & Spirit shows are now available online, and I'm enjoying listening to old favorites again and catching up on the ones I'd missed. Last night, I listened to "Surviving Survival" -- a show Ellen recorded years ago, for which I'd been one of the writers interviewed. I then had the very odd experience of listening to my younger self explain to me why the telling of stories is important. It's simple really (my younger self reminded me): I tell the stories that I do because I'm the person that I am. It's bearing witness. It's creating beauty in the teeth of destruction. It's both a necessity and a privilege, and that's enough.
Patricia Hampl once wrote (in The Writer on Her Work, Volume II): "For a writer it's a big deal to bow -- or kneel or get knocked down -- to the fact that you are going to write your own books and not somebody else's. Not even those books of the somebody else you thought it was your express business to spruce yourself up to be."
It's taken me all these years to fully appreciate how true this is.
Video above: "Telling Stories" by the exquisite Tracy Chapman. Photograph: The younger Ellen and me. The picture is from the late 1980s, when Ellen, after working publishing in New York, began her radio career in Boston, and I was starting The Endicott Studio. Photographer: Beth Gwinn.