Friday, January 8, 2016

Why I Write

E.B. White at work

Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, 
they inform and shape life. – E.B. White

There is a part of me that has always wanted to be a “writer,” by which I mean someone who makes a living as a writer. Wouldn’t it be nice, I have thought, to be an author of a bestselling novel or epic work of nonfiction; perhaps a nationally renowned journalist paid to cover the things I care about – U.S. politics, foreign affairs, world religions, and baseball. But as a young boy and through my teenage and early college years, it was an unrealized and mostly suppressed dream to which I gave little thought and even less effort. Although I wrote an occasional short story and made a few journal entries, I did not really begin writing, even for school, until college.

Freshman composition at Wittenberg University forced me to learn the process of putting words to paper, organizing my thoughts, and editing my own work. Though I cannot recall his name, I remember fondly my freshman writing instructor, for he helped me understand the writing process, validated my voice, and encouraged me to write more. When I wrote an essay on President Carter’s decision to grant amnesty to Vietnam War-era draft resisters, concluding it was the right decision and necessary to help the nation heal from a divisive war and a volatile time in American history, he offered skillful edits and gently asked probing questions that helped me to strengthen my arguments. It was the first time I can recall feeling inspired to write about social and political issues and the things that made me feel engaged with the world.

Over the years my writing developed slowly. In college, it consisted of essays and research papers – short reflections on 19th century English novels, a critique of Marxism and Capitalism, essays on political economy and the writings of John Kenneth Galbraith, Arthur Okun, Milton Friedman, and the country’s most prominent economic philosophers. I still have many of those college papers, because they remind me of when I first realized my passion for ideas and believed I had something worthwhile to say. And it laid a foundation for what later developed into a true love of writing, and desire to learn, that I continue to court and spark in the essays and writings on this blog and in my two books: Life Goes On and Eat Bananas and Follow Your Heart.

I am not likely ever to write a best-selling novel (I was cursed with a happy childhood) or the definitive biography of a Kennedy or Roosevelt. My professional career, as a trial lawyer and prosecutor, and for the past nine years as an investigative consultant, has been challenging and fulfilling. And yet, I remain compelled to write on these pages, not for money or fame, but to satisfy a profound need. Occasionally, I am asked, if not for money, if it is not something you are paid to do, why write? It’s a good question, for which I have many answers.

I write to enrich my understanding of the world around me. Writing helps me express my thoughts and put into words my perspectives on life and the rich diversity of humanity.

I write because I am fundamentally an optimistic person. I believe it is possible for the world’s major conflicts to someday end, for long-standing enemies to coexist in relative peace and mutual understanding. Some call this naïve – but they are mistaken. I fully recognize the obstacles to peace and hopeful resolutions. I believe in hope despite the odds. The possibility of peace in the most conflicted parts of the world is possible so long as human beings are capable of empathy and understanding, of walking in another man’s shoes. How the nations of the world can make this happen is the challenge for which writers, thinkers, and concerned citizens can and must make a contribution.

I write because I am inspired by a famous quote of Margaret Mead, which is printed on a large board in my study: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Writers, musicians, artists, philanthropists, business and political leaders, and yes, citizens, have the capacity to genuinely transform not just perceptions, but reality.

I write because I am optimistic about life. Despite my occasional brooding, I am happy to be alive and to experience life in all its dimensions. I write to share with others how I see things and to invite respectful dialogue. Though I hope to impact the thinking of others, I write mostly to record my thoughts, goals, dreams, and struggles.

I write about life because to be alive, to breathe the cool winter air on a crisp, sun-filled day is a tiny miracle of creation. “When [was] the last time you tiptoed out your kitchen door, or onto a fire escape, and took in the sky show?” asks Barbara Mahany at OnBeing.  “It’s there every night: the stars and the moon, waxing or waning, a night-after-night lesson in fractions. Lessons in wonder.” Writing helps me see this more clearly.

Writing allows me to reflect on life’s journey, on personal history, on the hopes and fears for my children, on love and loss, dreams and disappointments. Supplemented by books and good conversation, writing helps me to more fully observe the world’s abundant beauty and chaotic mess.

I write frequently about religion and faith because I remain fascinated by our ancient quest for understanding, humanity’s struggle to understand its place in the universe, its relationship to God and to each other. “Religion is an answer to man’s ultimate questions,” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel in God in Search of Man (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955). “The moment we become oblivious to ultimate questions, religion becomes irrelevant, and its crisis sets in.”

I am awestruck by the many expressions of God and faith that have existed in human history and that continue to flourish in profoundly meaningful and, at times, deeply disturbing ways. Whether or not one believes in God, and what truths one accepts, are deeply personal. Some expressions of faith, even ones to which I cannot subscribe, are beautiful to observe – the liturgy of the Catholic Church, the passing of the peace, saying kaddish at Friday night Shabbat, the Muslim call to prayer, Buddhist meditation, the spiritual silence of a Quaker meeting; candles and blessings, prayers, recitations, and songs reflect the many different ways in which humans express their faith, honor traditions, and commune with God. The world contains a mosaic of faiths, beliefs and disbeliefs, grandeur and mystery. I write to explain my personal search for God and my ever-present struggle to understand the mystery of life and death and what Heschel called “the sense of wonder” and “awareness of the divine.”

write also to counter religious provincialism and small-mindedness, which infect all of the world’s major religions. I believe religious illiteracy, simplistic and lazy thinking concerning the different religious beliefs and traditions of others – is the single greatest cause of hatred, bigotry, intolerance and violence in the world today.

I write about politics because I believe it our duty as citizens to remain engaged and informed. To write meaningfully requires one to think, read, observe, listen, and research. It is in the political arena that so much of what drives my writing is played out. For much of my life I have been an observer; interested, informed, opinionated, but not always involved. Although I attended an occasional march and protest rally, it is really not my style. Debate and dialogue, letters to elected officials, voting, canvasing, and the art of persuasion are where my energies are best used. And writing – from dispassionate reflection to passionate advocacy – is the forum in which I am most comfortable.

I write to express concern for the direction of our nation and the times in which we live. For all its flaws, American democracy is our best hope for positive social change, for incremental improvements to our civic life, for greater equality, better schools, fair housing and universal health care, peace and justice. It is where the great issues of the day are debated and decided. Lately, I struggle to understand the popularity of Donald Trump among a segment of the electorate that appears to desire a rude, boisterous, and perversely unenlightened leader who appeals to the basest elements of our nature, to xenophobia, and intolerance. It is a sad commentary on the state of American politics, though it is hardly the first time America has been divided or disproportionately influenced by a demagogue of despair. After all, it is hard to imagine that things were better in the days of Joe McCarthy and Father Coughlin.

Finally, I write about baseball because, from a very young age, baseball has captured my imagination and allowed me to live in an alternate universe, where the grass, the sun, the open air, the diamond shaped infield and green expanse of the outfield entered my soul and let me share in its wonder. No sport so easily translates into the written word, to literature and reflection, to life as metaphor. Few things in life give me as much satisfaction as a baseball game on a summer night. Baseball embodies the American spirit, the promise of childhood, and dreams of young boys in old men’s bodies.

So, as a new year begins, despite the noise and ugliness dominating the world scene on most days and the many conflicting demands on my time, I will continue to write and think about politics, life, and religion; to root unapologetically for the St. Louis Cardinals; and to offer my modest contribution to the literary craft.

. . . let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences. – Sylvia Plath

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