Teaching Writing

Charles Yu: Why I Write


Charles Yu, author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and member of the NWP Writers Council, illustrates the motive behind his writing. Originally published on December 5, 2012

I’m alone in a room. The door is locked—wait, no—the door isn’t locked. There is no door. Not anymore. It’s gone. I’m staring at a wall. I write to find out what’s on the other side of that wall.

From the wall, I hear tapping. Tap-tap-tap. I tap, she taps. I tap, he taps. It taps. Are those my own taps, echoing? Or is something tapping back? At me? For me? I listen to the rhythm, the urgency of the taps, to the silences in between.

Then I notice something about the room: it has no ceiling. The walls are high and smooth. Nothing to grab onto. I’m looking up at the sky, at bunches of fat cotton clouds. Cumulonimbus, someone says. Hello, I say. Those are called cumulonimbus clouds. Thanks, I say. And then it’s raining on me.

I’m in a room with no way out and a view of the sky and I am soaked and the room is rapidly filling up with rainwater. I’m waist deep already. My table is floating, my pen and pad of paper are nowhere to be found. Oh, there they are. I just got an idea—if I could only jot it down.

I swim across the room and make a grab for my pad. It’s soaked. Well, that’s no good to me now. At least my pen still works. I’ll have to write on my hand. I hope the rain doesn’t wash it away. Oh, well, it did. I’m holding the idea in my head. Is this even a good idea? Worth the effort? Worth risking death? Worth drowning for?

But now the water level has risen to the point where I am near the top of the walls. I’m not in great shape, and treading water won’t last for long. So I pull myself out of the water and I’m standing now on the narrow edge: the top of the wall is now an island. And now I look around and notice it’s not water I’ve been floating in. It’s a sea of words. In the distance, a half-mile, maybe, or a hundred miles? I see someone else, standing on her island. She’s waving at me. Or is she? I don’t know. I’m over here on my island, and she’s over there on hers. I wrote myself out of that room. And now here I am, a little less alone, because I see her over there, and she sees me. I wrote myself out of the room and now I will write myself off of this lonely little island, write more clouds into the sky and pour words into the ocean, and maybe, if I’m lucky, write myself a bridge across that ocean, to that island over there, to meet another person, to tell her the idea I have been holding in my head.