Why I write

“I write to astonish myself.”

I recently took this quote down from my refrigerator, where it has been taped at eye level for several years. The complete (refrigerator) quote is:

“Last days, last things, loom on: I write to astonish myself.”
Geoffrey Hill, The Orchards of Syon

I ask myself: why did I keep this quote in perpetual view for all that time? True, I often ignored it or forgot about it—as one does with things that are mounted in plain sight. But I also pulled down and put up other quotes, photos, and memorabilia, while keeping this particular scrap of paper in place.

For all of us, there are certain word combinations that stop us dead in our tracks. This quote does it for me. It seems to sum up my whole writing philosophy—not because my writing astonishes me, but because I am always trying to move to that place where it will, indeed, surprise, amaze, even astonish me. I may never get there, but the promise of it nudges me on, from day to day, from line to line, from story to story.

Words are powerful tools. Good writing, when it flames up, should stop us dead in our tracks—make us back up, look again, think, ponder. Of course, we can’t stop and ponder everything we read. Most of us spend our reading time in the more contemporary mode: scanning. But, once in a while, if we’re lucky in what we choose to read, something will stop us; something will astonish us.

According to Vladimir Nabokov, a writer of fiction is a storyteller, a teacher, and an enchanter. Novels, therefore, should contain story, lesson, and magic.

I realize, as I write and revise novels, that I continue to write because I’m convinced, or have managed to convince myself, that I will say what I’m trying to say, make the impact I’m trying to make, convey a little bit of that magic, with the next novel—or, perhaps, the one after that. As I am not widely published, I can only say that I keep writing for its own sake, because what I am attempting to say hovers, tantalizingly, on the brink of authentic communication. I suspect that all literature springs from this incentive.

In the next novel, I keep telling myself, I’ll get it right. In the next novel, I will astonish myself.

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