I sit in a chair in a circle with two dozen other students, a mix of graduate and undergraduate English students, fanned out around Marvin Bell, an acclaimed poet and the director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. We sit in a classroom in Patterson Hall, the home to the English Department at Memphis State University; he is visiting the university for two days, to give a reading and teach one workshop to those poets deemed of sufficient merit to not embarrass the faculty. I am a fire-breathing undergraduate, convinced I have found my path, biding my time until the full range of my talent is excavated from the depths of my psyche.
Bell begins to ask a poet questions about her work. She speaks of want, what she wants to convey, what she wants to tell the reader, but she lacks conviction. She asks him, “How do you know if you are a writer?” A couple of people cough to stifle laughs, as if such an elemental question is beneath them.
I sit, thunderstruck, reminded of the time I opened the fridge to get the milk, but my mind was so preoccupied I didn’t see it until my mother told me to go back and look a second time. How could I not have asked such a basic question of myself? This is the question that punches my ticket, or not, telling me if I may enter.
Because I still see myself as a musician, I have sidestepped asking myself whether or not I am a writer. At the dawn of my twenties I do not think I can be both musician and writer. It is enough to be one thing. If I am something, I reason, I have an identity, and I need that identity stamped on me because I don’t yet know what is inside me.
Bell looks out at us and says, “That’s easy,” and pauses. At least a dozen of us hold our breath. “You are a writer because you need to write.” He scans the room for a moment and then asks, “Who here needs to write?”
My arm rises faster than anyone else’s. There is no contest to win, but when he speaks of that hunger to say something, he helps me identify something I haven’t figured out how to name.
Bell goes on to clarify that a writer needs to write because they can’t not write. They possess an urge that will not abate, not for anything, not drink, not grief, not even happiness. A serenity spreads through my body. I realize I don’t have to identify why I write; it is enough to acknowledge that I need to write.
To this day, I’ve learned little about why I write. I’m untroubled by such a drive. I can ask myself why I must eat, and after deconstructing food and digestion down to the point of ATP, amino acids and the rest, it still tells us nothing of that feeling emanating from the part of our brain that developed back when we still grew tails.
My need to ride is no less elemental, that I feel no less starved by missing a ride than I do by missing a meal. Despite the fact that I was a rider the day of that workshop, I did not think of myself as a cyclist; rather, I was a musician who rode a bike. That question from Bell alleviated me of the obligation to ask why I’m a cyclist. Why the sun? Why love? Does it matter? Do we really need to know why there are the two poles of satiation and starvation? No.
I ride, and my day is better. I miss a ride and something grumbles inside me. I miss a few rides and I become the Lycra-clad equivalent of hangry.
I no longer worry about trying to define, to explain that urgency to non-cyclists. No, mine is a different question. How does anyone not have that need?