I’m Wired to Write. You are too.
For 44,000 years, “I am here”
Every time archaeologists push back the date of the first known cave art, I swear my DNA whispers to me, “See, you’ve been a writer for a very, very, long time.” Last fall, Smithsonian Magazine and Nature.com published details about the discovery of cave art — depicting pigs, dwarf buffaloes, and hand stencils, along with what appear to be interpretations of “humanoids” — in Sulawesi, Indonesia, and estimated the artwork to be 44,000 years old.
As quoted in the Smithsonian story, Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Australia, tells Michael Price at Science, “This is the oldest rock art in the world and all of the key aspects of modern cognition are there…When you do an archaeological excavation, you usually find … their trash,” he says. “But when you look at rock art, it’s not rubbish. It seems like a message. We can feel a connection to it.”
The Sulawesi cave paintings, like those of similar or younger age found in Spain and France and in other sites around the world, are, to me, affirming messages of “self” — the “I am here” shout — that continues to reverberate not just within the pages of archaeological journals, but within the strands of our DNA. While the depictions of animals and hunts and weapons and nuanced “humanoid” or spirit figures (therianthropes) are all fascinating in their styles, colors, techniques, and story-telling aspects, for me it is the handprints that spark the inner, millennia-old feelings of connectedness with our ancestors.
More than any other element of any cave paintings — no matter how complex or startling realistic — the images of hands, pressed upon a rough cave wall or soot-stained ceiling are signatures of every creative soul who has come before us. Each hand print, outlined in pigments either brushed on or sprayed from the mouth, transmits an ancient message that is totally decipherable to the 21st century writer.
Why do we write?
We are sometimes faced with the question, “Why do writers write?” That question’s source is not always external. Often it arises from within us as we struggle with a novel’s subplot thread that inexplicably eludes us, or a memoir that suddenly seems like nothing more than a muddled tale told by an idiot, or a blog post that falls flat. If we are honest, we ask that question when our work has been rejected for the umpteenth time, or when we don’t receive hundreds of claps or likes or fawning adoration for the brilliance of our prose. Sometimes — and I know this one well — we fumble for the answer to “Why do writers write?” when we look in the quizzical eyes of our partners, children, and friends and try to explain just why we do what we do.
Oh, regarding that last one, I know we all have pat answers that are just a bit too glib. “I write because it is what I do…can’t you see that?” Or, “I have a novel in me, and I just have to get it out.” Or, sometimes, to be more prosaic, “I write because it helps pay the bills and, anyway, back in J school, my professor really liked my work.”
The catalog of Google responses to the question, “Why do writers write?” is as varied and complex as the population of writers themselves. A Google search on the question returns 274,000,000 hits, and the first page of the search results looks like this:
I’ve read through a few of these citations, and while many of them reach into sociological, psychological, or simply practical analyses of why we pursue our craft, they all dance around the hidden-in-plain-sight answer — the answer the ancients left us on their cave walls: We write to say “I am here.”
Being present is crucial
We write because we are afraid we might be forgotten; we write because we celebrate the world around us before we, and it, are gone; we write to express our anger or pity or empathy with events too often beyond our control; we write to illuminate the dark corners of the world, and we write to extinguish the torches of hatred. We write to share our love; we write to isolate and examine our fears. We write to give voice to those who are silenced; we write to exalt those who are brave enough to speak out.
We write on our cave walls not knowing whether our painted words will endure, but writing nonetheless to affirm our passage though time — in this place, in this “now.”
The simple hand prints of those creative ancestors in their caves are their signatures, their tags, at the end of their art, or maybe those hand prints mark the artist’s territory, symbols of the boundaries of their ideas and interpretation of the world outside the cave.
Technology does not change the fundamentals
The progress of technology and the forms of communication may arc high over the humble writer — tools change, words evolve, ideas spread, civilization ebbs and flows — but the writer abides. The night is as much a mystery to the restless writer of 2020 as it was to the cave dwellers; dawn is as welcome to me as it was to them; nature, in all it’s power, fury, and beauty is no less awesome to me as it was to those charcoal artists of the distant past. And when I write about night terrors of dementia, or the dawn of spiritual awakening, or the migration of wildebeests across Kenya, I am only repeating what has been painted on the ancient cave walls by men and women who used the tools they had to describe their fears, their awakenings, their visions of the natural world.
And, like me…like all writers…the ancients put their marks on their stories with hand prints that remind us of our need to say, “I am here.” That is why I write — to reaffirm that ancient message: “This is what I have seen, what I have experienced, what I thought, what I wanted to share, today, tomorrow, and forever. I am here.”