The compulsion to write

Arriving early at my therapy session today, I sat in an armchair of the waiting room and picked up one of the Newsweek magazines that caught my eye. It was the August 9, 2010 Books issue with a photograph of Mark Twain. The story inside about him was titled Our Mysterious Stranger, by Malcolm Jones. Being a humble amateur wordsmith myself, and remembering my discovery last year that the famous humorist was a good friend of Nikola Tesla, the brilliant mechanical and electrical engineer and inventor, I had to peruse the story. It’s fitting to run across it now, a little over a year after I wrote that Tesla post, and a few days after I wrote that I should happen to find myself in a metamorphic process.

Though I dutifully (well, rather blissfully) read the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in my sixth grade Language Arts class, I really haven’t known much about the man behind the stories. I didn’t realize Twain wrote compulsively, carrying his notebooks everywhere, recording his observations, overheard dialogue, and story ideas.


To say that he was a prolific writer is an understatement. His writings fill not “merely several volumes but several shelves” – holding his stories, essays, travel books, and letters. And to describe the man? I can’t do it better than Mr. Jones who said,

It would be reductive to say that humor was Twain’s shield against the world’s absurdities, because humor is not an accessory and because he was funny right down to the marrow. But humor did coexist within him with a multitude of other impulses. Like the sunniness in his books is always giving way to darkness – or barely concealing it – his humor forsook him now and then, especially as he grew old, and in its place there is deep sadness and bottomless reservoir of rage.

Words were his compulsion. From his teens, when Twain began keeping notebooks, up through four months before his own death at 74, words were his constant companion. His last writings were of the death of his daughter Jean, who died of after an epileptic episode on Christmas Eve 1909. He wrote for three days as he processed his grief.

I lost Susy thirteen years ago, I lost her mother – her incomparable mother! – five and a half years ago; Clara has gone away to live in Europe, and now I have lost Jean. How poor I am, who was once so rich!…Jean lies yonder, I sit here; we are strangers under our own roof; we kissed hands goodby at this door last night – and it was forever, we never suspecting it. She lies there and I sit here – writing, busying myself, to keep my heart from breaking. How dazzlingly the sunshine is flooding the hills around! It is like a mockery.

Seventy-four years ago twenty-four days ago. Seventy-four years old yesterday. Who can estimate my age today?

The tears are welling up in my eyes as I type those words, my empathetic nature and sensitivity is triggered by the imagery his words convey, 100 years after he wrote to articulate and process his grief. Here I sit on the couch with my laptop, transported in time, peeking inside his mind and feeling the pain of Twain’s grief upon my heart. I don’t have to lose a daughter to taste his pain. I’ve witnessed significant loss in my life too.

For me, this article is another sign…pointing me in a direction I need to explore more sincerely but I’ve been denying. Part of the metamorphic process I’ve been undergoing has been a literary journey too, as I’ve read and shared my thoughts on more than a few wonderful authors, both living and deceased with a fellow logophile. No doubt, this magazine was waiting there for me for a reason.

A snippet of a song is coming through my mind right now…

“Signs, signs everywhere there’s signs…blocking my scenery…breakin’ my mind…”.

For those unfamiliar with the tune…it’s from the 80’s rock band Tesla. Yes, that IS freaky weird…did you know the band Tesla was, in fact, named after none other than Nickola Tesla?

But getting back to the song…signs aren’t blocking MY scenery…or breakin’ MY mind. They are pointing the way to go.

My husband has teased me that I am addicted to the internet. I now realize this is inaccurate. Thanks to this article, and Mr. Twain, I have discovered I, too, have a compulsion to write. I don’t feel settled until I write something each day. Mostly it’s letters (well, emails…but emails sound so impersonal). I used to write letters prolifically by hand, years ago, and I have a fair number of them saved – those I wrote my husband early in our relationship, many I wrote my first love who returned my letters when his girlfriend might discover them because he could not bear to throw them out, telling me “you’d know better what to do with them”, and more recently, email correspondence to international pen-pals. I’ve started putting my journal posts and letters in binders so that I don’t lose them.

I’m really not obsessed, not addicted to the internet, but to the access I have to the written language and to fellow wordsmiths who share the delight in the power and beauty of words. Words that may capture only a mere fraction of the intense inner experience we feel, but try we must. The written word can’t exactly convey the scent of a fragrant lilac, or the texture, taste and color of a tart Granny smith apple, but it can impart a very close approximation of the real thing. And writing can be magic, conjuring up the images of memories in the reader, who might very well call to mind the scent of lilac plant they passed on the way to school and the same apples used while grandmother was baking an apple pie.

For Twain, his compulsion with words was his way of processing his life, which I’ve realized is not so much unlike me. For all the posts I have written on this blog, there are many more unwritten ones in my head, many more conversations and random thoughts as I go throughout my day, recalling the exchange of ideas and continuing a dialogue long after I part ways with others. I’ve been this way for as long as I can remember.

I was recently paid a lovely compliment by an internet correspondent of mine:

You’ve got a lot of attention and time for people and for intense
exchanges. You’re just built that way. Who is it that first picks up on their radar when someone is having trouble? You. You have an almost psychic gift for it.


I have words and ideas and stories in me that need out. I find it extremely difficult to find people in real life who have the time and the ability (and the energy) to engage with me in intense intellectual exchanges. I had found scant few over the years. I have also found that my intensity and my curiosity about others and my almost psychic ability to reach into them is a little overwhelming, at times. People find it a little daunting to keep up with the pace I set or be comfortable with as much as I perceive about them. Yes, I AM difficult to keep up with, sometimes. I have an uncanny ability to see deep into others. This is who I am.

Now that I have accepted I have a compulsion to express myself, it releases me from my guilt AND, ultimately releases others from having to meeting the need for me. The guilt I have that I am ‘too much’, ‘too intense’, ‘too sensitive’ has rather haunted me for quite some time. Expressing myself is a large part of who I am, and, like a sculptor or painter that needs to capture his muse in marble or canvas, I have a burning desire to immortalize my experiences and my beloved sources of inspiration in the words I write.

Like Mark Twain, I, too, process life and grief through writing. A few years ago, when I held my sister’s hand through a tragic stillbirth delivery of her son at 22 weeks, I wrote every detail of the experience that I could remember as soon as I got home – from the medical details to the personal ones so that I wouldn’t forget my perspective of the experience. I wrote for hours, writing and editing and trying to give care and attention to a life never lived. I wrote for myself, and I wrote for my sister. I wept and processed a grief I experienced vicariously through my sister. A few weeks after the funeral, I gave my sister the story of her son Joseph, and she appreciated the care I took and the attention to details. She told me she remembered very little of the heartbreaking experience, since the medications they gave her eradicated most of the memory she had of that experience. I felt truly grateful I could give to my sister a record of what occurred as best I perceived it.

I’ll take this article and Mr. Twain’s example as a not-so-subtle sign as an encouragement and permission to realize that a major part of my identity is that of a writer and I need to give way to my creative side that clamors to get out. Remove obstacles…and the river of creativity flows effortlessly.

Oh, and yeah…I had a great therapy session too! Perhaps more on that later.

About Casey

“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ ~ Jack Kerouac, On The Road Again
This entry was posted in journal entries, Mark Twain, Our Mysterious Stranger and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The compulsion to write

  1. Phil says:

    Very compelling, very insightful – painfully insightful, and very uplifting as well.

  2. Robert Black says:

    Say it and keep saying it. Let it pour, in joy and grief and lust and doubt and with a shoulder to the side of intractable questions. Writing is a craft like any other; a set of muscles that strengthen when you exercise them.

    Let it pour and hone your voice and share your heart and your sense of yourself, through all you process and feel and try to know. All you feel sure about, or you can begin to guess at; all you don’t know but what like to understand. All of which pulls back the curtains to your soul.

    I’d like to do it with you, although there will be times I may struggle to keep up, as you suggest. I write in bursts and rests, and not quite compulsively; I produce more and better with a little nudge or a spur. We’ll encourage each other. You know where I’ll be. Keep writing. You have a lot to say.

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