No One Can Take a Bath for You: Why I Write


The other day, a friend of mine said he was giving up writing. This friend happens to be a very good writer. Why? I asked. Too many people already write about the things I write about, he said. I thought about this for a long time, and while I understand (and even sympathize) with this idea, I feel compelled to call bullshit on it.

I write a lot about death. About love. About bad relationships. About identity. About failure. About beauty. About home. Probably, 90% of literature is about these things. There have been many writers who have tackled these subjects with more skill and heart than I have, and there are many people at this very second writing about these things, but that hardly seems reason enough to abandon the whole endeavor.

There are a limited number of human emotions, and this is why we all write about the same things. But this doesn’t bother me, because it’s not really the same thing. My idea of love is not your idea of love. And my experience of love certainly isn’t yours. My entire existence is mine alone, and yours is yours alone.

There is this existential saying: No one can take a bath for you. This is what I am getting at. We define our world based on our own experience, and our writing stems from that experience. So in the end, there can be an infinite number of unique stories about love.

Not writing is easy. I could write a compelling essay about the many reasons to give up writing, but I won’t because I am an eternal optimist who believes in books. But my friend did get me thinking. How did I get here? Why do I write?

These kinds of essays tend to come from writers who are well into their careers (as they probably should), people who have more perspective and insight into their own histories. I’m at the relative beginning of my writing career. I have a novel, a novella, and a collection of short stories in the works, and there is only the slightest bit of indication that any of these things will be remotely successful. Nevertheless, one must start somewhere.

So, dear friend who is giving up writing, I hope you’ll reconsider. The world needs your words. Perhaps I can convince you by telling you why I write:

I didn’t always want to be a writer. The fact that I always wrote seems irrelevant. I can’t remember writing anything of consequence before the age of twenty, though I suppose there were things. Many terrible poems. In high school, I wrote a story from the perspective of a spoon. There was another story where a bar of chocolate melted on a park bench. It was symbolic, I’m sure.

I wrote songs and thought I would become a musician. I stood on street corners with a guitar and tried to make people smile. I wanted to learn how to play the drums, but my teacher told me I didn’t have any rhythm. You can’t keep a beat, he said. It’s one of the saddest things anyone has ever told me. Some things we just can’t do, no matter how hard we try. We are wired for certain things. We are wired to be someone.

I wrote a novel in college. It wasn’t very good and no one read it. It was easy to write in Seattle because it rained so much, we all lived in coffee shops and talked about books and read books and fell in love with books, even more than with each other.

I majored in philosophy because I wanted to learn how to think. Later on, I figured out that college can’t teach you how to think. I went to South Africa and I unlearned everything by working in the world, my hands in the dirt. I thought I might become a photojournalist, but taking pictures of strangers made me anxious.

I worked in an office for a while, where everyone was smart and beautiful and well-dressed, but I couldn’t figure out what they actually did all day. It was about this time—when the concept of an expense report took on some meaning—that I thought I might really pursue writing. I hate this phrase. We don’t really pursue anything. We do, or we don’t. We fail, and that is fine.

I moved to New York, thinking proximity to other writers was good, or maybe it was just some romanticized idea of what that city was, or could be to me. There was no logic to this plan. I arrived in August and it felt like walking in soup. New York is a strange city for a shy person. The anonymity is appealing; connecting to other human beings is much more tricky.

I derailed myself, as I often do, and went to design school, fell in love with typography, and landed in the art department of a magazine. I took a lot of wrong turns, which has made my life very uneven. This is what I think they call building character; I suppose I am a different person now than I was then.

I wrote another novel in grad school. It was about a bunch of disaffected New Yorkers, which is probably what every other hack in the city was writing about. It was about myself, obviously. A few people read it, and didn’t hate it. I don’t know why I wrote it, only that I needed to write something because fiction was the only way I could be honest.

I was very sick for a while. I went to a lot of doctors. I sat at my desk at the magazine, and looked at proofs, and cried a lot because I didn’t know what was wrong with me, only that everything hurt. After a while, pain just became my normal state and I forgot what it was like to feel anything else. Three years later, after I’d resigned myself to it, they figured it out. My immune system was fucked. They fixed me. I still get very nervous around doctors. I never write about sick characters. I can’t.

I grew up in Boise, a small city in southern Idaho that lies in a valley surrounded by golden hills. Sitting on my stoop on Brooklyn, I often wondered how I could possibly live in a city without mountains. A city without a horizon. I feel an obligation to write about Idaho. To dispel the myths. To show people how beautiful it is. That it’s my home, and the idea of home (the ideal idea of home) means something to me. My childhood house sat on the corner, there was a porch and a porch swing, and the swing creaked whenever you sat in it, and there was a deaf white cat that we inherited who always sat on the porch and watched the swing move, but we knew he couldn’t hear anything.

Someone broke my heart, bad. Sliced it right though.

I moved back to Seattle. I worked in some more swanky offices. I designed a bunch of shit that I didn’t care about. Sitting in offices, doing work that has no meaning is the quickest way to become profoundly unhappy. It happened so fast I surprised myself. I was broken-hearted and bored in a chilly, grey city, sitting alone in a room full of books. I don’t know why it took me so long to see the most obvious thing; I’d been lugging books around the country, from one coast to the other. My rooms—all of them—had always been filled with books.

So I read. I read hundreds of books that year. I took comfort in perfect word pairs, and strange sentence constructions, and unexpected phrases. And I wrote. I wrote short stories. I wrote essays. I wrote the beginnings of novels, which I will never finish. I wrote, and I wasn’t broken-hearted, and I wasn’t bored anymore.

With a new purpose in mind, I moved to San Francisco, the beautiful city by the bay, and I went to MFAland, which may or may not have made me a better writer. Mostly I think reading is the only thing that can make you a better writer. I love this city in the way I love other people, as if we exist in the same space for a reason. I sit and write in my sunny kitchen window where it’s bright and I can watch the people walk by below.

My life isn’t extraordinary. My route to writing isn’t unusual. But, it’s mine. I don’t think one needs to be extraordinary or unusual to be a good writer. The only thing beyond technical skill that one needs to be a good writer is curiosity. Carefully observe every inch of your world and then say something about it—something only you could say—and then share it.

Writing chooses you. Literature chooses you. Books jump from shelves into your hands, words jump from pages into your mind and these words mean something to you, more than to other people, so much in fact, you feel that you must write something of your own, that you must create a book of your own to place on a shelf, which will eventually jump into other hands and minds.

The thing I always believed in, and never stopped believing in—language, books, paragraphs, sentences, words, punctuation, all of it—was always there, always sitting in neat rows on my shelf. I write because I want to add something of my own to that shelf. I write because I have stories to tell. Stories that only I can tell.

So, friend who is giving up writing, figure out what brought you to writing in the first place because I think you’ll see that you really aren’t writing what everyone else is writing about. And I, for one, want to know what you have to say about love, death, identity, failure, beauty, home, and whatever else we all write about, because only you can tell your stories.

Nancy Smith is a writer and graphic designer. Her work has been published in Paper, The Believer, Seattle Weekly, Resonance, and Communication Arts. She has an M.A. in Media Studies and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. She is currently working on a Ph.D in Communication and Culture at Indiana University. She blogs about books, design, and technology here: More from this author →