Why We Write

On the light-rail to the university at which I teach, I was reading as slowly as I could—the way Charlie eats his candy bars—through Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. The stories are so few, so lean, so quick. You want to savor them. I was scheduled to talk to the English Department’s honor society students about fiction writing, publication, graduate school, and so on. The train was running late. I’d just make it to the meeting start time if there were no more delays. I finished the story “Dirty Wedding” just as the train pulled to a stop at the university. Leaping from the train car and sprinting toward the appointed meeting place, I could not quit thinking about the story. It was so jagged and beautiful, so seamless and authentic. I was weighted down with my appreciation for this story. Specifically, I had in mind a friend who I knew would feel its power. I could tell her about Denis Johnson and “Dirty Wedding” after the meeting. I could give her the book the next day. She could read that story, the entire collection, everything. But as I ran, a desperation overtook me. She had to know right now about this wonderful story. I stopped, knelt in the grass, used my phone to take a picture of every page of the story, and I sent each picture to her. Then I ran all the faster. I had something prepared for these students, index cards with the typical fare, but I chucked it all. I was breathless and sweaty. I just told the gathered creative writing and literature students the story of why I had come in just under the wire. Denis Johnson still had a few years to live.

I told those students to imagine how it would feel to him if he could know that somebody had dropped out of his everyday life, knelt in the grass, and photographed his words, because they had to be shared, and shared immediately. I told them about this because I figured really, this is why we read. Really, this is why write.