Why do we write?
That’s a thorny question for many authors. We’d rather give a terse reply and chug some bourbon rather than give an honest answer. Because posing that query forces us to look inward and ask the hard questions. And we’d rather ask those questions about other people than ourselves, for fear of what we’ll find. For me, it took a little while to pin down exactly why I jab at the keyboard several times a week while peering anxiously around to see if writer’s block is attempting to ambush me. It does that, you know. No warning and then – BAM – it takes you right down.
Being an overly analytical Army engineer, I began by trying to get at the root cause of the issue: who do I write for? That one’s easy: when I began writing as a teen, I was writing solely for myself. Which was good, because my own self was the only witness to the absolute bilge that one produces at that age. In college, I wrote for professors and cursed everything. In graduate school, I wrote for the monster named Thesis that presided over every waking hour. And when I was finally freed of this beast, I had no desire to write any more.
At least, I didn’t until I found myself in Afghanistan. It was a war that didn’t feel like a war. We wore the trappings of war – body armor, helmets, weapons – but it was more like one long board room meeting with brief moments of explosive excitement. Deployment as an executive officer and then later as a staff officer means that you have little to no control over your life. Hours are set by someone else; the mission determines where you go and what you do. You spend hours at a computer to produce orders and guidance that no one will read. For a young officer, it is a rude awakening to what the veterans who grimace into their coffee cups every day already know: it’s not the outcome that matters, it’s that the processes are followed.
I would walk back under the shadow of the towering T-walls to my five foot by seven foot personal palace, my small space of solace where I slept and sought some semblance of control. And it was here that my fingers again tentatively returned to the keyboard. Muscles in my mind – long dormant – torpidly stretched and yawned, shaking out the kinks. Slowly, and then with speed, I tapped out my first few pieces. In a sense, it was my declaration of independence. It was an attempt to state my humanity, as if to shout out to the bordering Hindu Kush mountains, “I am me, I am an individual, I am not a drone, I create.” They never seemed to care, those gorgeous and forbidding mountains.
To create. To build a sense of freedom. That is why we write. In a world where I could control very little, the ability to empty the jumbled cornucopia of my mind onto an empty page and come away with something that resembled a thesis and an argument gave me back some bit of my humanity. It was creating order out of chaos; or just creating chaos, but it was my chaos. For once, I was the ruler of my small domain.
From then on, I have written to create. Whether it is a humorous piece exploring who we are as veterans, an analysis of Star Wars tactics, or an exposition of historical events, I write to join in the communal sharing of ideas. It is an inherent desire deep within the soul to live beyond one’s self. So really, for lack of a better explanation, I write to be human and part of the human race.
And also because it’s damn fun.
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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.
Cover image: Power of Words by Antonio Litterio