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Why, I Write!

by Scott D. Vander Ploeg
[This essay derives from a prompt: “Why I Write,” which I’ve slightly altered.]

Yes, I do. 

George Orwell tells us that it is important to know the background of a writer in order to understand his or her “emotional attitude,” which influences the subject matter the writer chooses and is the impetus that sends the writer forward in writing. He also says that he knew he would be a writer when he was just a child.

I did not. I did not know what my future might be, and instead opted to chase crawdads in the creek with my best friend, Brian. We spent our days playing a great variety of games, some we made up ourselves. My emotional attitude was all about play. Writing came much later, but it is all about play, too.

I recall an early love for reading, and as a means to impress my eighth-grade teacher, Ms. Oleanor, I tried wading through The Brothers Karamazov, knowing little about Russia or that each character had around five different names. I wrote for her a short story that involved a Formula I race track and a very tall pagoda (liked that word) that toppled over onto the contestants.

After this magnum opus, I went fallow in my literary efforts, and wrote the required assignments without great lust for the work. I wrote a senior thesis on censorship, and learned how not to develop a research paper. When I attended college, at Purdue U, as an English major I was in a minority among the throng of engineers and sciency types. In my junior year, I wrote fluffy features stories for the college student newspaper, the Purdue Exponent. Other college writing? Well, of course essays and term papers, and when I look back on these I’m embarrassed by the level of mechanical error. I clearly did not think correctness was all that important. It is not lost on me that as an English composition essay teacher, I would be correcting student writing, and that if I had been my student, I probably would have failed myself. Cosmic payback.

My own college English composition course experience was dismal. For instructor, I had lucked into getting a real professor instead of a TA, Dr. Leslie Field. He was a Thomas Wolfe scholar, and smoked a pipe in class, leaning back, long legs extended, while he regaled us with stories about drinking with the great author himself, and his time as a soldier in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Field’s pedagogic strategy was mimicry—read essays then write in the style of that author. It was an old strategy. I later learned this was a fairly mindless way to generate compositional expertise. He first assigned us to read a series of essays by none other than George Orwell—“Shooting an Elephant,” “A Hanging,” and “Politics and the English Language.” We read these and he told us what we should understand from them. We nodded our heads. Then he had the audacity to assign us to turn in our first essay of the semester.

I was flabbergasted, gob-smacked, and describable by lots of other funny sounding words that denote complete and utter dismay. I had no idea what to do, what to write about, and the damned thing was due on the next Monday. I looked around for the equivalent of an elephant in “must” that needed shooting. The former corn fields of West Lafayette, Indiana, were not offering anything comparable. I sweated proverbial bullets, finally drafting something that could best be described as “lunatic,” about my dorm living conditions, and worried about flunking out in my first semester. Surprisingly, he liked it, and I got a solid B for the sheer wackiness of my idea.

And I really loved new words. Don’t recall where the advice came from (Mortimer J. Adler?), but it was that we should keep a note card as book mark, and when we see a new word, write it down and find a synonym definition to write next to the word. If the word pops up again, we are to play a game to see if we can remember it, and then check on the card. I did this with the somewhat fusty Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and added a couple dozen new words to my tacit vocabulary. I remember Stowe used the word “vociferously” several times.

Still, I was not much of a writer. I was a vociferous reader, and a pretty good teacher, even though I did not take up the quill myself.  It is impossible to completely avoid hypocrisy, I believe, but I made the effort. In one advanced writing class, I told the students that if they found places to submit their writing, I would write and submit along with them. My student, Patricia, had found that the regional NPR radio affiliate, WKMS, out of Murray, Kentucky, would accept contributed essays from the listening public. She sent one in, it was accepted, and she drove to Murray State U to record it. Then it was my turn. I did it, too. It was good fun. She quit after writing a few, finding it to be too much work and hassle. I kept going, recording around 120 such 3-4 minute spots. The following, heavily edited and excerpted, is my 22nd radio commentary, from June 12, 1999:

It was with great surprise that I nodded my head when I was recently introduced to a stranger with these words: “This is Scott—he’s a really good writer.” I had never before been assigned that label. I did not know how to wrap my mind around it—a vocation, an occupation, an obsession? In any case, I found the moment absolutely delicious. My chest expanded in egotism. In spite of the prevailing anti-intellectualism and the pop culture of distractions, as a people we tend to admire our writers. We grant them a special status in our secular hierarchy, as though they possess special wisdom, sages who open their hands and reveal words the readers try to snatch away, like when the young “grasshopper” Kwai Chang Caine tried to snatch a rock from his master’s palm in the television series, Kung Fu. I yearned for that kind of attention….

I want to tell stories and be the guy who magnetically attracts others to listen, the fellow who is always ready with a joke, always the one who must be invited to the party. Judging from the novels and movies about writers, such as in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, publishers would probably disagree and think the authors are a burden and a curse. Ironically, the industry depends on writers, though it doesn’t always treat them well.

Lastly for you listeners, I write now because I just can’t stop myself. Robert Frost was asked why he wrote poetry, and replied that it is because he had one hell of a good time doing it. Yes, it is something that is fun to do—for those who have acquired a taste for it. It is work, hard work, but it is fun work (for me). This is fun in a deep and meaningful sense, a way to assert my essential humanity. Words and word-play are a manifestation of an internal dialogue between me and myself, the auto-pilot Bloomian stream-of-conscious that runs on a loop in the mind. Writing provides an inner game of signification that is the difference between the dream of life and the sleep of death. I am the words I am, the “I am” of who I am, or as Popeye says—“I yam what I yam!”

I dissertated in 1993, a work on thematic self-reflexivity in the poetry of John Donne. I read up on Donne and Donne criticism for years, and started to put together an extended essay in the previous summer. It failed. I learned the next spring that my dissertation director, Dr. John T. Shawcross, was planning to retire. It was push-time. I began writing as soon as the spring semester concluded in early May, and by mid-August had around 180 pages drafted. Generally, I would go to the college and work in the evenings, finishing at two or three in the morning. I began submitting chapters and with revising, and completing the draft, it grew to 340 pages. While this may seem rather plodding information, what I want to convey is something that I was surprised to learn: that there was great joy in the act of sustained writing. I loved it. I was so caught up in my writing that it accompanied me when I drove home. One time, at 3 a.m., I realized I was blowing through a red stop light at a major intersection, completely captivated by thoughts of what I had just drafted. It was all-encompassing and I was all in. I found joy in writing. Since then, I write when I can, because I love doing it.

In an effort to better inform the other faculty, who also had dim understanding of what we taught, and the staff and advisors, I started writing humanities “nuggets”—brief explanations of literary or artistic things going on around us. I sent these via the email system at our college. After the first few, I realized these nuggets might have a home in the local newspaper. The newspaper’s editor agreed and I began a column, writing articles of just a couple hundred words on a weekly basis. I kept them light and friendly. After writing a hundred of such, I retired the column, though the editor wanted me to continue (it was an unpaid gig).

The take away: When asked why I write, like Orwell I can come up with several reasons. I think the better question is why in the world wouldn’t I write? It is such serious fun to play with language, to orchestrate the essay, to paint with words—when I am thus engaged, I am at my very best. To me, writing is simply the most intense playfulness I can find. In the middle of the Twentieth-century, Jean Piaget studied how children play and from what he learned developed theories about education, his genetic epistemology. The process approach to teaching composition that I was led to use in some ways derived from this.

In my study of the varieties of literary criticism, I was attracted to phenomenological or reader-response theory. It may be more of a sociological brand, but in some ways I think play-theory, because of its similar interactive nature, appeals to me even more. In 1938 a Dutch historian and cultural observer, Johan Huizinga, wrote an investigation of the way that mankind is involved in play, titling his work Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. The Latinate first words of the title mean ‘mankind playing.’ With a nod to his idea of playfulness, I give you, Homo Scripturam, ‘mankind writing,’ or for me in particular, Homo Scribbler.

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