The Impulse to Write?

Predictably, I didn’t finish my little volume of Ovid before departure on Saturday. And even though it got tucked safely into the rest of my luggage, I passed most of my time, whether grounded or in the air, fully immersed in Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million. I got into Mendelsohn a few years ago, after reading his smoothly intoxicating The Elusive Embrace (whose first chapter is available here!), and have since continued to enjoy his pieces for The New Yorker and others.


Mendelsohn, by Donald Sheridan

Lost is a tale, as you’ll probably guess from the title, of trying to find members of the author’s family who disappeared along with so many others during the Holocaust– in this case, Mendelsohn’s great uncle and aunt and the couple’s four daughters. Because I’m not even halfway through, I’m not going to get into the narrative itself at this point, long and emotionally complicated and continent-crossing as it is. Rather, I’m going to focus for now on an assertion the author makes about his craft– namely, about the “impulse” he declares is “the one that drives a person to write– to impose order on a chaos of facts by assembling them into a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.”*

When I came across this statement, I marked it, recognizing a validity in its contents, but immediately uncomfortable, somehow, with accepting it tout court. Yes, writing a story or essay or poem does involve imposing order, through the use of words, on thoughts and feelings, even facts, swirling around in one’s head. And if giving expression to something is synonymous with imposing order upon it, then I guess we’ve solved our problem. But I’m rankled to think that enforcing a particular sort of tidiness upon something is the final goal for which I’m aiming.

Again, order can’t be absent from the process or the product; otherwise, we could just throw out a bunch of terms and call it a day. And in order to achieve the certain intangible magic that dwells within a particularly good piece of writing, that piece has to display a sort of symmetry that allows the magic to come through. But again– I’m stumbling over this order business, and I’m not sure exactly what it is my soul is kicking against.

Have I discovered a neglected shred of adolescent romanticism still lingering around, the type so prevalent in college that truly believes love is enough to overcome all obstacles, and that unfettered self-expression is the noblest and most significant calling this world has ever issued?

I hope not. But it’s going to take some time to get to the bottom of this discomfort, this mental frown that pops up in the face of a little line on a page in a very big book filled with so many more important things to wrestle with.


* Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 38.





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