National Writing Project

Why I Write: Mark Salzman Writes Because 'It Hurts So Good'

Date: October 17, 2011

Summary: Mark Salzman, an award-winning author of several novels and nonfictional memoirs, delves into how Hellen Keller inspired him to search for wonders in the world. That sense of discovery and inspiration guides him in his writing process—which he calls "an itch he can't ignore."


Does the name Helen Keller sound familiar? I learned about her in school when I was growing up, but I don't know if she's still part of the curriculum. She was born in 1880 and then got very sick when she was eighteen months old. The illness left her unable to see or hear, but even without the benefit of those portals of communication, she became one of the most communicative people of all time. She became a celebrated writer, a lecturer, an activist on behalf of causes ranging from women's suffrage to workers' rights, and a consistently joyful person.

I think it would be fair to say that she led the opposite of a wasted life. Here's one of my favorite quotes of hers: "Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn whatever state I am in, therein to be content."

The first time I read that, I remember thinking: Whatever she's drinking, that's what I'll have.

Alas, contentment in whatever state I am in will never be my default setting, but lucky for me, you don't have to have peace of mind to write. It's a journey of discovery rather than of conquest. Writing has made me more Helen Keller-ish in one sense, however: it has taught me to search for the wonders in every situation, even if I don't always find them. You have to do that as a writer; otherwise, you tend to notice and describe things in such familiar ways that readers get bored.

Writing is my search engine, it is the medium through which I try to make sense out of life.

I started writing when I was twenty-five, after I'd returned from a two-year job teaching English in China. My intention was to launch a career as a martial arts teacher, and I did, but my career was short-lived. Partly it was because my lower back kept going out, and it's hard to teach martial arts when you can't get out of bed. Mainly, however, it was because I felt dissatisfied. I could show people how to perform the movements, but I couldn't offer them the one thing I'd hoped a martial arts teacher could offer me: an answer to the question, "Why is it so difficult to feel at home in your own life?"

In my spare time, I started writing down some of the experiences I'd had as a teacher and student in China. To my surprise, I found that I enjoyed doing this. Before that, writing had always been a duty, an obligation I had to fulfill in order to earn a passing grade in some class. Now I was writing in order to tell stories that had actually happened to me. I didn't have to "motivate" myself to write those stories; wanting to finish them became like an itch that I couldn't ignore, and writing brought relief.

Since then, I've found that if I go longer than a few days without trying to write something, I feel restless and unsatisfied. It's a compulsion, I suppose, but in my case it's a healthy compulsion. Writing is my search engine, it is the medium through which I try to make sense out of life.

I recommend it to anyone, not necessarily as a profession but as a habit that prompts you to look inwards and do something with what you find there–record it, analyze it, question it, refute it, embellish it, aestheticize it, whatever. It's the doing something with those thoughts and feelings that makes you feel like you're getting somewhere, even if "somewhere" remains an indefinable term. I write because it hurts so good.

About the Author Mark Salzman is an award-winning novelist and nonfiction author who has written on a variety of subjects, from a graceful novel about a Carmelite nun's ecstatic visions and crisis of faith to a compelling memoir about growing up a misfit in a Connecticut suburb. A number of his books have been chosen for "book in common" reading programs by more than a few schools and universities for their elegance, humor, and portrayal of our shared humanity. His first memoir, Iron and Silk , inspired by his years in China, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction and received the Christopher Award.

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