Here I am, reading The Writing Life by Annie Dillard--just one of a large number of books by authors self-analytical about writing and the writer's life. Why are writers so self-preoccupied? After five years of writing Mind Matters (and sermons eight times longer), I am finding myself more reflective about the process of writing, even agonizing over it with a recent luncheon companion. Why, I ask myself, am I still awake at 2 a.m., after a long Sunday, trying to find the right word, instead of the almost right word, for a sentence? Why do I put myself through the discomfort of exploring mistake-laden past experiences and the personal anguish of self-exposure? What is the source of the belief that others will want to read or hear what I write? The person who said that we are pain-avoiding, pleasure-seeking animals did not know the insistent anguish of writing.
Jackson Browne spoke of his songwriting, "I've been a compulsive sense-maker." He got it right. Deep down, there is a strong need to make sense of the sometimes puzzling, sometimes chaotic, sometimes fermenting, sometimes irrational, sometimes despairing aspects of life . . . and then to write about it.
Writers are not the only compulsive sense-makers. Scientists look at patterns and anomalies in the physical world and work at making sense. The composer hears a progression of musical chords that demands resolution. The psychologist seeks to give sense to puzzling human behavior. The parent tries to place life in sense-making verbal packages to ease the child's way. The theologian bends the mind to find the sense-making behind all sense-making--that which we call God.
Actually, all humans compulsively impose understandings and order on the puzzling, chaotic, fermenting, irrational and despairing aspects of life. Senseless death strikes a young child and the words, "It was the will of God," readily slip off many tongues as a way of making sense. Unexpected and undeserved disappointment washes over us, and we resignedly say, "Well, that's the way the ball bounces" (even when we don't literally believe in purposeless fate). Each one of us needs to find, or to make sense of, the forces and relationships that affect our lives. We all are, every single one of us, compulsive sense makers. Persistently and pervasively, sense-making is in the very sinews of our existence.
Simply put, the writer expresses in words what each of us
knows and does intuitively--but not so simply it turns out. As
Annie Dillard delightfully describes the process: "With your
two bare hands, you hold and fight a sentence's head while its
tail tries to knock you down." Wrestling alligators is dangerous
--Robert H. Tucker
12 October 1998