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Why We Write

Writers who are fortunate enough to have a platform feel the moral obligation to express their reaction to circumstances because, as part of the human family, we are affected in one way or another by what befalls others.

The novelist Mordecai Richler wrote that “Doctors are seldom asked why they practice, shoemakers how come they cobble, or baseball players why they don’t drive a coal truck instead, but again and again, writers, like housebreakers, are asked why they do it.” The question deserves an answer.

Political scientists, political advisors and professional opinion columnists offer solutions for today’s social and political issues. Public intellectuals, writers of fiction and others do not offer solutions. We pick up our pens—or sit at our computers—to draw attention to an issue and to inspire readers to create a community that will encourage positive change. We are in the consciousness-raising business.

Writers who are fortunate enough to have a platform feel the moral obligation to express their reaction to circumstances because, as part of the human family, we are affected in one way or another by what befalls others. Such writing is aspirational, not pragmatic. It may be a cry in the wilderness but at least it is not silent acquiescence. Consider it a dissent from the madness. 

The French novelist Albert Camus wrote that “true despair is a death struggle, a grave, an abyss. If it speaks, if it reasons, above all if it writes, immediately our brother extends a hand to us, the tree is justified, love is born.” The French-Canadian novelist and poet, Anne Hébert, inspired by this comment, adds to it: “And I believe in the power of poetry, I believe in the salvation that comes from every exact utterance, experienced and expressed. I believe in solitude broken, like bread, by poetry.”

Despair, Camus’ words suggest, is a dead end. Communication, on the other hand, speaking and especially writing, is reaching out to the other so that life itself is affirmed, love is possible. A literature of despair is a contradiction in terms because there can be no despair when there is the possibility of understanding and connection.

Anne Hébert adds the thought that every articulated truth that one has experienced and shared is a form of redemption. It is sacred because it offers hope. 

The writer, the academic and the journalist understand the power of the word to reveal, to inspire and to motivate.

Writers and readers exist in a state of collaboration. Each has a duty: the writer, to witness, to testify and to illuminate; the reader, to discover, to ponder and to internalize. 

Writers and readers exist in a state of collaboration. Each has a duty: the writer, to witness, to testify and to illuminate; the reader, to discover, to ponder and to internalize. Perhaps to act. It is a relationship, a partnership, a great act of humanity because it gives meaning to human relationships and the power of people to renew, rededicate and restore our common humanity.

Judaism has a very long history of speaking truth to the people and to power. It begins in the Bible and continues with the Prophets and then in the writings. 

The whole Book of Deuteronomy is a seminar on ethical behavior and a call to righteousness. The Prophets’ thunderous proclamations are familiar to many: Amos (“Let Justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”); Isaiah (“Learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s case”); and Micah’s unforgettable “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” 

Many rabbis today echo the moral injunctions enshrined in Jewish writings. Rabbi Dov Linzer writes that we all have the “mandate to stand up for those who are the targets of hatred and injustice, the mandate to challenge those who are in power to do what is right and just.” 

Judaism is much more than simply a social justice movement. It is a way of life involving commitment to observance of Jewish law, but social justice is the embodiment of spiritual values clearly articulated since the giving of the Torah. Being a people of the covenant means accepting ethical principles. 

And so, whether one is a great writer, humble scribbler or simply a citizen of the world, we are all called upon to join in the task of making the world a better place, however modest the contribution. As Voltaire so famously wrote: “Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.”


Dr. Paul Socken is Distinguished Professor Emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies program at the University of Waterloo.

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