When asked this question, I began thinking of the throes I go through to write. Like getting up at 5 am to get some notes done or to work out a messy paragraph from the night before. Or staying up until 1 in the morning during a weeknight, a school night, a “you have to get your ass up to go to work the next morning” night, just so I can finish a final section of whatever it is I’m working on, a story, an essay, a post for my blog, a chapter in a novel.
I also began thinking about some of the responses I’ve had to my writing. Like the guy who told me once that my prose sounded like poetry. Or another who said that my stories about black gay men filled a void in his life, because he saw so little representation of himself in print. Or, back in college, when I wrote a commentary for the Daily Bruin about ROTC’s and the military’s then-exclusion of LGBT people from their ranks, how someone enrolled in ROTC called my parents’ house (this was before major FERPA enforcement and student phone numbers and addresses were printed in a directory for all the world to see and find) to talk to me about how my piece was unfair to the program and how it upset him. I wondered, and still wonder, if he was dealing with some aspect of his own sexual identity, and if my piece struck too close to home for him. We never spoke again, and I never met him. I hope he’s OK.
It took me a long ass time to finally admit that I am a writer. I entered college with hopes of becoming an astronomer. I still love astronomy, but have no real aptitude for higher math or physics. In other words, I sucked in my lower division classes. By contrast, once I became a history major, and spent most of the time writing papers, I started acing. But really, I wrote for the high school newspaper, I wrote comic book things in elementary school, my mother was an English major when she went to UCLA, and she and my father read a great deal, so there were books all around the house. This is how I got into Poe and Ralph Ellison and Ray Bradbury. If I had been paying attention, I could have figured out, “hey, this writing thing, that’s how I roll,” at a much earlier age. But as a long-time student of the School of Hard Knocks, where I’m currently enrolled, I had to do things the hard way around.
All this is very well, but it doesn’t answer the question, Why Do I Write? But then, seemingly out of nowhere, came something that I felt approached an answer. The other night, while rewriting a section of my novel, I wrote the following sentence:
A soul in trauma often steps outside of itself and helplessly watches its body writhe in torment.
As soon I saw that sentence in 2D as pixels on my computer screen I said, “That’s it!”
I am a soul in trauma, constantly searching for identity and meaning, for validation and acceptance, for representation and confirmation. And the only way that I know how to do this is through the written word. Like so many before me, Baldwin, Ellison, Angelou, Walker, I must bear witness to what my soul observes, the changes I go through, the changes I see others go through, for doing so brings inner peace. And as I’ve demonstrated above, I’ll go through any lengths to find that peace.
That’s why I write.
(PS: My dad’s favorite line from Isherwood was, “I am a camera.” Yep, Dad, indeed I am.)
Gregory A. McVey-Russell (or gar) was born in 1965 and grew up in South Central Los Angeles. He went to an integrated magnet school, LA’s first, and then UCLA. His fiction has appeared in the anthology Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Ages of AIDS (1993), Mobius (Spring, 1999), and Harrington Gay Men’s Fiction Quarterly (Vol. 7, No. 3, 2005). He began his blog, the gar spot, in November 2010. He currently lives in Oakland with his partner.