Why I Write by David Ebenbach

The thing is that I’m confused. Deeply, seriously confused. And I don’t mean just right now; I mean generally. I mean that I was a confused little boy and that I had a confusing adolescence and young adulthood, and now here I am: full-grown confused. I mean morning, noon, and night.

In my opinion, this is a pretty understandable way to be, given this astonishing and complicated world of ours, this world of natural forces and societies and life and death and everybody making their way from sunup to sundown in all their incredibly peculiar and hopeful and dazzling ways. There are billions of people on this earth, doing billions of things for billions of reasons right now, and reacting to the billions of things other people are doing all around them. It’s nuts out there!

But, writing? Writing makes sense. And that’s why I do it.

First of all, writing just makes sense to me as an activity. Me and the page or me and the computer screen: I know what I’m supposed to do. Sometimes I can’t get it done, can’t get the words down, and certainly a lot of times the words I put down aren’t the best ones for my purposes—writing is hard, after all—but even that makes sense. I know it’s all part of the process. Frustration, blockage, bursts of fluency, words pouring out all over the place, getting them in the right order and doing the right things—those are all aspects of what it means to be a writer. I’ve seen them before and I’ll see them again. My relationship with words is not always straightforward, not always easy, but it always feels like I belong in that relationship. And that’s what it means to be me.

On top of giving me that personal sense of purpose and rightness, writing also helps me to make sense of the confusing world around me. I once saw a little girl playing in the snow and, when her hands got cold, she started crying and she said, desperately, “Nobody loves a snowy girl.” What an amazing and baffling thing to say! What could drive a little girl to a line that despairing? I wrote the short story “Nobody Loves a Snowy Girl,” about a fictional (and very different) little girl, in order to figure it out. Another example: I once attended a baseball game that was being held on the stadium’s “Jewish Heritage Day,” and the whole game was themed around that: lineups announced in Yiddish, the mascot dancing the hora, dance-club versions of Hebrew prayers played between innings. What a strange event! What could it mean to celebrate Jewish culture in the context of a baseball game? I wrote the short story “Jewish Day” to find at least one answer to that question. Yet another example: at some point it struck me just how many different choices and accidents have led me to where I am in my life right now, and how different my life would be if I’d gone in a different direction at any one of those moments. How baffling, thinking of all the possibilities! I wrote the short story “Counterfactual” to start to get a grip on them.

Honestly, I think that every half-decent thing I’ve ever written represents an attempt to turn confusion into understanding. One of the most amazing things is that the understanding lingers. In fact, when I’m writing regularly, I go out into the world and somehow it doesn’t seem quite as confusing anymore. I watch people do the things they do and suddenly it all makes more sense. I see a couple fighting and I can glean some sense of the dynamic that led them to that fight; someone asks me an unexpected question and I have an idea where it came from; I see a parent bend down to a child and I think I might know what’s going to happen next. I also find that, when people start making sense to me, I also start seeing them through a kinder lens. It’s hard to understand without also sympathizing.

Conversely, when I get too busy and don’t make time to write, the confusion rolls back in like a tide. With that confusion comes frustration—frustration and a dangerous lack of sympathy. Why are those two fighting? I don’t know; maybe they’re just jerks. Why is this person throwing this weird question at me? Does that parent even know what to do next? Given how unpleasant these lines of thinking are, a stretch of not-writing will eventually send me running back to writing. Running fast.

What I really hope is this understanding not only lingers but also carries. I hope that anything half-decent I’ve ever written has a chance to help readers understand things a little better, too. I know that the great work of other authors has always done that for me. I think the very best of our art suggests that, however nuts it all might seem, the world isn’t ultimately confusing. That people do make sense and have their sympathetic reasons and that there’s some powerful purpose in all of this. I think the very best literature—and writing itself—helps us to see that for ourselves.

David Ebenbach was born and raised in the great city of Philadelphia, home of America’s first library, first art museum, first public school, and first zoo, along with his very first stories and poems – though those early efforts went on to become (deservedly) less famous than, for example, the zoo.

Since then David has lived in Ohio, Wisconsin, Philadelphia again, New York, New Jersey, Indiana, and Ohio again, picking up some education (formal and otherwise) and more than a few stories along the way. He has a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

In addition to his short-story collection Into the Wilderness (October 2012, Washington Writers’ Publishing House), David is the author of another book of short stories entitled Between Camelots (October 2005, University of Pittsburgh Press), and a non-fiction guide to creativity called The Artist’s Torah (forthcoming, Cascade Books). His poetry has appeared in the Beloit Poetry Journal, Subtropics, and the Hayden’s Ferry Review, among other places.

He has been awarded the Drue Heinz Literature Prize; fellowships to the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center; and an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council.

David currently teaches at Georgetown University and very happily lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife and son, both of whom are a marvel and an inspiration.

“For the very real people in David Ebenbach’s vivid and emotional stories,” says author Jesse Lee Kercheval, “becoming a parent—as Judith, the single mother in four of the stories, says— is going ‘into the wilderness.’” The collection Into the Wilderness explores the theme of parenthood from many angles: an eager-to-connect divorced father takes his kids to a Jewish- themed baseball game; a lesbian couple tries to decide whether their toddler son needs a man in his life; one young couple debates the idea of parenthood while another struggles with infertility; a reserved father uses an all-you-can-eat buffet to comfort his heartbroken son. But the backbone of the collection is Judith, who we follow through her challenging first weeks of motherhood, culminating in an intense and redemptive baby-naming ceremony. Says author Joan Leegant, “Ebenbach takes us deep into the heart of the messy confusion and terror and unfathomable love that make up that shaky state we call parenthood. These stories are fearless, honest and true.”

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3 thoughts on “Why I Write by David Ebenbach

  1. This is a wonderful piece. It explains the bad mood and confusion I’ve been experiencing way too long. It also lights the way ahead. Thank you, David.

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