Why I Write; An essay by Dorianne Laux

Why I Write; An essay by Dorianne Laux
November 25, 2023 Laux Dorianne

In her profound essay titled “Why I Write,” for this month’s issue of Plume, Dorianne Laux confesses that she is “still hard at work “on the project of self,” both “the solitary self and the self in relation to the world.” Approaching this project with Kierkegaardian chutzpah, she confesses in this poetic credo: “I write to know the questions.” This endeavor prompts her to delve into a profound self-examination of just why she writes with a Socratic curiosity that is as meaningfully universal as it is also deeply personal.
–Chard DeNiord



“…autobiography is an occasion to purge oneself of vanity, while advancing the project of
self-understanding—call it the wisdom project—which is never completed, however long
the life.”

Susan Sontag from her forward to Another
Beauty, by the poet Adam Zagajewski


I am still hard at work on this project of the self.  The solitary self, as well as the self in relation to the world and to the unknown universe we swirl around in, uncertain of our purpose or future.  When I wrote the poems that would become my first book, I didn’t think of it as a book, but rather as a need to understand the basic questions that all human beings ask:  Who am I?  Why am I here?  Where am I going?  What is beauty?  Why is there suffering? Where is truth?  These questions have been shortened, extracted and added to from the more antic original quote by Soren Kierkegaard, who said, “Where am I?  Who am I? How did I come to be here? What is this thing called the world? How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted? And if I am compelled to take part in it, where is the director? I want to see him”.


These questions and others would arise in the form of poems, and in making the poems into a collection, I tried to arrange them in a shape, find a path for them to travel, to make clearer those questions.  I write to know the questions.

Poem after poem, book after book, the ante is upped.  I think this could be why it takes most of us so long between books.  The poet is working harder each time to go deeper, farther, layering on or stripping away to find the exact color or texture, the core or the root, the frail light or the watery dark.  I write to work things out. I write to concentrate, to feel a sense of purpose rise up in me.  I enjoy the struggle of making a new object to present to the world, a gift made from scratch, whole, unique, edible, speakable. And I want that gift to travel well, packed into an old boat on calm water or hidden inside a greased body diving into a blue pool, a sleek arrow that leaves a feathered silence and wonder in its wake. I like moving, word by word, toward a sense of discovery, toward an awareness of self, a curious, energetic, intelligent, humorous, sacred, baffling, heartful self. I work to find my subject, something I can sink my teeth into.  I live for that flaring up of language, when the words actually carry me, envelope me, grip me. And all of the above comprise the reason why I read poetry, to hear the truth, spoken harshly or whispered into my ear, to see more clearly the world’s beauty and sadness, its tragedy and comedy, to be lifted up and torn down, to be remade, by language, to become larger, swollen with life.

I write to add my voice to the sum of voices, to be part of the choir.  I write to be one sequin among the shimmering others, hanging by a thread from the evening gown of the world.  I write to remember.  I write to forget myself, to be so completely immersed in the will of the poem that when I look up from the page I can still smell the smoke from the house burning in my brain.  I write to destroy the blank page, unravel the ink, use up what I’ve been given, make something new of it, and give it away.  I write to make the trees shiver at the sliver of sun slipping down the lip of the axe blade.  I write to hurt myself again, to dip my fingertip into the encrusted pool of the wound.  I write to become someone else, that better, smarter self that lives inside my dumbstruck twin.  I write to invite the voices in, to wrestle with the angel, to feel the devil gather on its haunches and rise. I write to hear myself breathing.  I write to be doing something while I wait to be called to my appointment with death.

Pulitzer Prize finalist Dorianne Laux’s Only As the Day is Long: New and Selected Poems is available from W.W. Norton as are her award winning books, Facts about the Moon and The Book of Men.  A text book, Finger Exercises for Poets, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton as well as a new book of poems, Life on Earth. She is founding faculty at Pacific University’s Low Residency MFA Program and teaches private workshops in Richmond, CA and online.  She is vice board chair for the Raleigh Review.  https://www.doriannelaux.net/