Opinion: The reason why I write
|Published: 10-18-2023 5:00 PM
Parker Potter is a former archaeologist and historian, and a retired lawyer. He is currently a semi-professional dog walker who lives and works in Contoocook.
Recently, when I was picking up my canine friend Annabelle, the younger of her two human sisters asked me “Why do you write articles for the newspaper?” I gave her a glib response: “I like to write, and the newspaper is willing to publish my columns.” Annie’s sister deserves better.
I have always loved to write. I wrote for my junior high school newspaper, my high school paper, and my college paper. I co-edited my high school literary magazine, edited my college literary magazine, and even dabbled in poetry.
When I was an archaeologist, I didn’t dig many holes in the ground, but I wrote lots of articles for professional journals and all kinds of things for the public, explaining my project’s archaeological work. As a historic preservationist, I found ways to put my writing skills to use; I wrote several pamphlets and most of my agency’s quarterly newsletter.
After law school, I worked as a law clerk for twenty years. I spent forty hours a week drafting opinions for judges, and I spent my weekends writing law review articles just for fun.
These days, after I get done with my daily dog walking, I often write a Facebook post about my walk. And every three weeks, I write a My Turn column. Pretty much every thought I have ever had has ended up on a piece of paper. So, the evidence tends to suggest that I love to write. But why? To answer that question fully, I need to look inside myself and outside, to the readers I envision whenever I am writing.
Looking inward, writing has always come easily to me, and I suspect that we all enjoy doing things for which we have natural aptitudes. I also appear to be a pretty good writer, and I enjoy an attaboy as much as the next guy.
Writing things down is also a way of getting them out of my head, which clears bandwidth in my brain that I can use to think about other things. As it happens, I compose much of what I write while I am out on my morning walks, and I’d imagine that all that mental composition helps keep my old-man brain a touch sharper than it might be otherwise.
In the end, it may be that I enjoy writing because it is a relatively easy way for me to make a mark that seems to be appreciated by some of my fellow travelers on this planet. But before I elaborate, I must digress and make several points about making a mark.
First, while the desire to make a mark may be a fairly common human impulse, I don’t know that it is universal. I know, or know of, plenty of people who are determined to live their lives by stepping softly and making few waves. I respect that.
Moreover, for those who do want to make a mark, the marks we make can be meaningful and important without being either permanent or physically tangible. Years ago, I discovered that I have a talent for arranging two-dimensional artwork, and when I hang an art show, my mark lasts only for the duration of the installation. My wife, Nancy Jo, makes her mark primarily in ways that are ephemeral but very real, by doing good works and giving her time to worthwhile projects including one called compassionate listening, which is a technique for fostering respectful conversation among people with different viewpoints. So, there are many ways to make a mark.
But that still begs the question: Why try to make a mark? For me, anyway, when I write something, I have to believe that it is more than just painting “Kilroy was here” on the side of a building. If something I write does nothing more than amuse me, it doesn’t belong on Facebook or in the Monitor.
As a result, when I write for Facebook or the Monitor, I always have readers in mind, along with an understanding that the point of writing for an audience is to move readers, to get them to think something or do something, to help them be just a little bit different after they’ve read a piece than they were before they read it. If I can’t figure out that kind of a purpose for something I’ve written, no matter how clever it may seem to me, I don’t hit the button to post it on Facebook or send it to the Monitor.
Now I return to the question that prompted this column: Why do I write? Most of the time when I put pen to paper (yes, I’m old enough to use those ancient tools), it is to invite readers to consider thinking a thought or doing a thing that has worked well for me. No more, no less.
Because I spend so much of my time writing, it is quite useful for me to reflect on why I write, and for the inspiration for these reflections, I thank Annie the dog’s sister, my friend Marlo.