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Why I Write

By Susan Traugh


            I write essays.  I must write essays.  As I lie in bed at night and fall into that twilight place between wakefulness and sleep, they come.  Full blown.  Insistent.  Repeating and shouting their existence until I get up out of bed and write them down.  So, here I am again, in the wee hours of the morning…writing essays.

            In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, John Steinbeck noted that William Faulkner had said “the understanding and resolution of fear are a large part of the writer’s reason for being.”  Sometimes, I think it’s the only reason.

            My husband is bipolar.  My son is traumatically brain injured.  My oldest daughter has Asperger’s, is bipolar and has a bleeding disorder.  My youngest daughter, too, is bipolar, has the same bleeding disorder, plus Grave’s disease and has spent the last two years at home while we try to figure out what else is causing her debilitating fatigue and pain.  With so many physical and mental illnesses running in the family, my life often pin balls from one crisis to another.  Often, when too many fires are demanding attention from too many quarters, I feel at a loss as to how to take the next step or where to locate the next fire hose.  It is then that I must write to find the understanding.  It is through the writing that I can find resolution to my situation and escape from my fears.

            A friend once admiringly asked how I deal with my life, how I handle my full plate. And yet, her son had died several years before, and I marveled that she could still breathe in and breathe out. My plate feels empty compared to hers.  Another friend’s husband has left her and she struggles to feed and clothe her family on less than $200 a month.  Another had the luxury of marrying a multimillionaire so she had no worries about money.  But then, he died, leaving her with a small child to raise alone.  I’m awed by the grace of each of these friends as they struggle against situations I would find daunting. 

            A minister once asked his flock to look around.  He noted that every person in the room had their own plate full of pain.  Some were on the brink of financial ruin.  Some had debilitating disease.  Some had a heart that was breaking.  Yet, he said, no one in that room would exchange their problems for anyone else’s in the room.

            On the eve of Matthew’s brain surgery, we sat awake in the hospital holding our baby, unable to sleep for fear.  As we walked the hall, we met a father with his tiny son awaiting the child’s heart surgery in the morning.  We exchanged stories and listened in horror as he explained how they’d stop his baby’s heart to try and repair a defective valve, hoping to fix it before his tiny body gave out, or his brain died.  In confident denial about our own situation, we expressed our encouragement and admiration to the father for his trial ahead.  Then, that dad snapped us into reality when he picked up his own boy and sadly smiled, saying, “Pick your poison.”

            Life is suffering.  That is simply the human condition.

            I once dated a man who lived by the adage “Life is hard: then you die.”  In his fatalism, he used the belief to justify all sorts of bad behavior.  Yet, while I believe in the first part of his philosophy, I disagree with his conclusion.

            For while life is hard, I believe that our job is to explore that suffering and fear to find its meaning.  Unlike my agnostic brethren, I do not believe that life is a crap shoot with evolution’s pieces falling haphazardly into the magic of life only to end in dust and decay.  Nor do I believe that all our behavior is preordained by some heavy-handed cop in the sky.  Free will plays large into my personal beliefs and that willfulness can only choose toward the good when that will understands where it is and why it got there.

            In his speech, John Steinbeck goes on to say, “…the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit—for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love.  In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation.  I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.”

            While I cannot declare that I have attained any rightful “membership in literature,” I can mirror Steinbeck’s belief in humanity’s greatness of heart and spirit. I see it in the widow, the divorced mom and the survivors that are my friends.  I see it in the lives of each of you who receive this essay as you strive in a spirit of grace under the most difficult of circumstances.

 I have no choice but to explore the meaning of my own suffering and fears, both for myself and for the hope that my revelations will in some small way spur on your own; that my own hopefulness will strengthen your fight against despair.

            Along the way, I’ve found some truths.  I understand that my years of suffering with endometriosis and infertility burned within me such a passionate desire for motherhood that I can bear and accept the difficulty of raising not one, but three special needs children.  I understand that the hopelessness of those years of pain gave me insight into the hopelessness of the inner-city moms I worked with when I taught, help me to lend an understanding ear when my fellow-sufferer needs to talk and give me a clue about my children’s despair as they face their own disabilities and disappointments.

            In an early artificial habitat, scientists created a domed world where only gentle breezes and soft rains fell on the trees and animals below.  Yet, in these ideal conditions, when the trees fruited, all the nearly-ripe fruit would fall to the ground.  It turned out that, without thrashing winds and pummeling rain, the trees limbs could not become strong enough to support the life-giving fruit.

            Without my previous suffering I could never have gained the fortitude to deal with my children.  Without that earlier loss, I would never have seen the precious gift my life is now beneath the raw, uncut wonder of the moment.

I now understand that the “Leave it to Beaver” model of the perfect life is as colorless and flat as that black and white screen it played upon. In fact, even those writers of banal comedy can’t sustain the joke-on-us more than 30 minutes—after that, it’s time to write drama. For while many try to force their lives into that onscreen sitcom model, the only way it can be accomplished is with half-truths and deception. Life is more than a 30-minute sitcom.  Unfortunately, it is filled with suffering and fear.  But, our human fortune lies in the fact that that same suffering is what makes us strong enough to bear fruit, it’s what gives life its color and depth…and, yes, its meaning.

I passionately believe in the perfectibility of man.  But, like Michaelangelo’s David, that perfection comes from chipping away our excesses and grinding down our rough edges.  And, it comes from understanding where that excess and rough edge lies. It comes from looking at our suffering, opening and cleaning those wounds and rejoicing as the healing and growth begin.

And so, I write essays. I write because I can only live once I find those bright rally flags of hope. I write because it is only then that I can sleep.

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