Why does one begin to write?

September 19, 2011, by

I said it in a previous post, but I’ll say it here again: I think Nicole Krauss’s most recent novel, Great House, is one of the top three novels I’ve read in the last year. Probably even the last five years. While writing these posts over the past few weeks, I’ve spent some time trying to figure out exactly why I responded to it so strongly. Yes, the sentences are lovely and yes, the story concept is rich, but there was something else I couldn’t quite pin down.

I returned to the notebook that her first novel helped me begin, and found part of an interview with her that I’d copied out. In response to the question, “Why do you write?” Krauss answers this:

Why does one begin to write? Because she feels misunderstood, I guess. Because it never comes out clearly enough when she tries to speak. Because she wants to rephrase the world, to take it in and give it back again differently, so that everything is used and nothing is lost. Because it’s something to do to pass the time until she is old enough to experience the things she writes about.


Back when I was applying to MFA programs, I kept returning to that quote when attempting to write personal statements for the applications. Why do you want to be in an MFA program? Why do you want to, of all things, write? I thought I’d never heard anyone say it better than she had—not just that you can’t help but write, but also because it is a way to live the life you can’t yet live, or the one you never will. It is a way to say the good things that happen and control the bad things that happen. It is a defense, and sometimes the only defense.

It strikes me now that Great House is really about writing. Yes, there are the four characters narrating their separate stories, but the fifth (and perhaps most important) character is the mysterious writing desk linking those narratives, which has served as witness to both low tragedies and exalted loves across generations and continents. The writing that happens at that desk is the way the characters withstand life’s pain. It is their defense. I think I responded to this novel so strongly because it is, in many ways, a love letter to the act of writing, of recording, of sitting down at a desk—made of veined wood, worn, sturdy, many-drawered—and rephrasing the world.

I think I’ve figured it out. This is a fine novel, a great novel. It is a novel for anyone interested in writing, and by that I mean anyone who tells themselves stories in order to survive.

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