Why I Write: By Hilda Raz

The following is from the University of Nebraska Press Spring 2021 Newsletter, i.e.

Hilda Raz is a former editor of Prairie Schooner and was named the first Luschei Professor and Editor in the Department of English at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. She is the editor of the Mary Burritt Christiansen Poetry Series at the University of New Mexico Press and the poetry editor for ABQ (in)Print and Bosque Press. She is the author or editor of fourteen books, including List and Story. Her newest work is Letter from a Place I’ve Never Been: New and Collected Poems, 1986-2020 (Nebraska, 2021).

Since childhood I’ve written down words, often in short lines, with the emphasis on sound. Patterns. I like patterns, too. Let me show you how the process works for me.

The window washer is coming soon. Piles of books on the window seat to replace on shelves. Now a book falls opens to a chapter, “Warrior Slogans,” that begins, “Three objects, three poisons, and three seeds of virtue. Atisha.” Wait. I have to write it down. Here’s a notebook and a pencil. I sit. My fingers move in time to my brain’s mutter. Something else begins.

Life is chaotic on the face of it, isn’t it? The computer every day. The pandemic, the election, insurrection. The predation of earth. Sounds are everywhere. Words. Those vowels. A chant against tyranny. And now here’s the window washer. I’ve got to go.

Long ago I learned to be an editor. First my high-school yearbook, then my college literary magazine, later at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference editing The Crumb, the daily paper, and then working with the literary quarterly Prairie Schooner as a manuscript reader and then as editor in chief.

E. B. White famously wrote to a fan, “My wife is helpful to me in my writing, but she does not write. She is an editor. An editor is a person who knows more about writing than writers do, but who has escaped the terrible desire to write. . . . A writer, however, writes as long as he lives. It is the same as breathing.”

I’ve been a writer ever since a pencil (too young for a pen, said my mother) came into my left hand, long before I became an editor. The tactile pleasure of pushing and pulling the lead across the paper. And later the sound of typewriter keys putting rhythm to my words. Then the clack of the IBM Selectric ball racing across the sandwich of onion skin, carbon paper, and twenty-weight manuscript pages. The smell of the mimeograph, the correction fluid—mostly ether. Who could resist? Every sense engaged.

Editing is good for those of us who like to collaborate. Writing is a solitary business. Joan Didion said in her essay “Why I Write”: “Like many writers I have only this one ‘subject,’ this one ‘area’: the act of writing. I can bring you no reports from any other front.”

Truly when there is news to tell, when, for example, like many people, I had breast cancer and I could report from the front, my writing fit the patterns of protest and observation. And for decades I’ve written two kinds of books together, one poetry, one prose. Divine Honors and Living on the Margins: Women Writers on Breast Cancer were written during treatment. When my younger child came out as transsexual, before and after his surgery, I wrote Trans: Poems and What Becomes You, a book of essays with Aaron Raz Link. And when New Mexico became my home, I wrote List and Story, poems that are catalogs and narratives, one form exhaustive (narratives, stories) and the other suggestive to the reader (lists, catalogs), both forms good company as I made my transition from professor to full-time writer. The essays are germinating. Now Letter from a Place I’ve Never Been—which contains all my poetry books, published but not collected poems, and almost a full book of new poems—is being published by the University of Nebraska Press.

And now it’s time to answer the question I was asked: Why do I write? Because I know how, I write. Because the habit is in me. Because I’m addicted. Because ecstasy lives in the world and horror and folly and all those abstractions that need concrete examples to make sense, I write. Because my children and grandchildren and all of you are in the world. And every path leads to an encounter with something beyond us. And I need to document these meetings, these assurances that behind every veil is a breath, wind moving something, sun coming up and going down in windows; that every owl and raven hunts for prey and that prey may be us; that revolution is in the body and the body politic; that life is precious and needs no explanation.

And here’s the truth—I write to loosen the bounds of things. To make the world porous. To unload and unlock sensory information. To engage the spirit. To see through the scrim to the light. To fix each moment. To merge with my subject. To transgress. To repent. To object. To find the muscle attachment in the shell of the oyster.

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