Saturday, December 8, 2012

Dec 8: B.J. Hollars on Paul Auster’s “Why Write?”

This was supposed to be an in appreciation for Paul Auster’s “3.”—the third segment of a larger essay entitled “Why Write?”  However, I’ve already screwed this up.  Be warned: this is no longer an appreciation for a part of the work, but the work in its entirety.  Not just segment 3 anymore, but 1 and 2 as well, and lest we forget 4 and 5.

Originally, I hoped to focus on the essay’s third segment, because that was the segment that once mattered to me most: the tale of a 14-year-old Auster at summer camp who, when trapped alongside his fellow campers in a rainstorm, attempts to crawl beneath a barbed wire fence to take shelter in a nearby field.  Auster never makes it there because the boy ahead of him—a boy named Ralph—never makes it there, either.  Ralph is struck by lightning mid-crawl, and as the electric current passes through the barbed wire, his back is seared with a scar.  Ralph dies, and the 14-year-old Auster—no more than a body length separating him from death—trembles belly-down in the wet grass, his own searing taking place in his memory.   

The end (at least for the segment that once mattered to me most).   

When I first stumbled upon “Why Write?” I was an undergraduate with little inclination to deduce the mysteries of the essay’s subtle linkages. I understood that segments 1, 2, 4, and 5 likely served some larger purpose, but all I cared about was “3.”  I was a camper-turned-camp-counselor myself.  A college-aged kid who for three summers holed up in a cabin alongside 10-year-olds like Ralph and prayed to God my charges didn’t get struck by lightning, drown in the lake, or fall from the climbing tower.   

Here’s something they don’t tell you on the camp brochures: there are a million ways for a child to get hurt in the woods.  And since I’d just read Auster’s “3.”, I could add one more to the list.  


You’ll be happy to learn that nobody ever died on my watch.  Nevertheless, each week, one of us counselors had a Ralph in our cabin; the camper who was a magnet for misfortune, some happy-go-lucky kid who always wandered into poison ivy, or a wasp’s nest, or a bevy of low-swooping bats.  I knew many boys like Ralph (heck, I had been a boy like Ralph), though I further connected with this particular segment of the essay because Auster’s mental searing easily translated to mental searings in my own life—the image of a grandfather lying lifeless on a bedroom floor, the memory of a last wet breath from a beloved dog spilling out into my palms. 

It wasn’t until last week that I got around to really studying the essay in its entirety.  

This is what I found:

Five anecdotes in five segments.   

Segment 1 describes a pregnant woman who, in the late stages of two pregnancies, serendipitously turns on the television to the exact same movie, and in both instances, gives birth by movie’s end.   

Segment 2 recounts Auster’s paternal instincts mysteriously transporting him to the precise coordinates that allow him to catch his free-falling daughter.   

Segment 4 shows a former German prison guard and his former prisoner-of-war who, despite their past, befriend one another many years later when their children fall in love.   

And finally, segment 5 describes Auster’s boyhood encounter with Willie Mays, a heartbreaking scene in which the author’s lack of a pencil cost him an autograph. 

But what, I wondered, connects these anecdotes?   

And why, I wondered, is this essay called “Why Write?” 

The answer comes in the essay’s second-to-last line, when Auster explains the long-lasting effect of missing out on Mays’ autograph. 

“If nothing else, the years have taught me this: if there’s a pencil in your pocket, there’s a good chance that one day you’ll feel tempted to start using it.”


Upon first encountering “Why Write?” I could see no further than my own experience, but when reading it again, I began to see greater connectivity by zooming outward.  Each segment, for me, became a part of something larger.

When speaking to my students about similarly structured essays, I often find myself comparing their structures to constellations. I’m the hair-brained professor scrawling stars across the latitudes of the whiteboard and connecting them with dotted lines. 

“Much like a constellation,” I blather, “you can only understand the work as a whole by understanding the beauty of each star individually, as well as their collective beauty.” 

Who knows what the hell I’m talking about.  Who knows if my schematic makes sense.   

All I know is the students are kind enough to pick up their pencils and humor me with their half-hearted notes.   

They—like Auster—understand that the first rule of being a writer is to carry a pencil. 

Because who among us can ever predict when and where lightning might strike?


B.J. Hollars is the author of two books of nonfiction, Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America, the 2012 recipient of the Society of Midland Authors' Award, and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa, forthcoming in 2013. His short story collection, Sightings, is forthcoming next year from Indiana University Press. He teaches creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.


  1. Auster is the king of serendipity.

  2. Wow. I was really struck (no pun intended) by this essay (yours and Auster's). Thanks!