I was talking to a rather brilliant woman a couple weeks ago, the editor of not one but two literary journals, knowledgeable, active, engaged.

We were done with business - she'd recently published a couple fiction pieces of mine - and we were just chatting. She asked me, politely, what I was up to, and I told her it was a hectic time: readings here and in Canada, launching a new book in New York City, deadlines to meet, new worlds to explore. Then she said something shocking: "I envy your writing life." I was surprised, and puzzled.

I wasn't surprised simply because life always looks different from the outside. Think of the last aquarium you saw. It gave you pleasure to watch the multi-colored fish swimming around, intricate mobile jewels in an underwater ballet, but from the fish's point of view the world is four glass walls. It's far more than that. Chaucer got it completely wrong. Yes, 'life is short, and the craft is long to learn.' Still, he might just as well have said 'the work is hard, and the rewards are lean.' Most writers learn that quickly, even the greats: Ovid, Dante. Think of poor John Clare. Think of Dowson, for goodness' sake. Or Yeats: just before the phone rang, with news of the Nobel Prize, he was sitting in an unheated kitchen with his wife, eating day old bread and drinking cheap wine.

So why do we do it? Especially those of us who aren't Ovid, who aren't even close to Yeats? This is one of my favorite questions: what are we actually doing, and why? We've all heard the standard answers, and most of them are wrong, at best evasive, at worst a kind of immodest dissembling. We've all heard the most popular one a hundred times, "I write because I have to." Whenever someone says this to me, I want to say, "No, you don't. You'd get along perfectly well without it, you'd go on living and breathing and probably having more fun." Others say things like, "I have something to express." This one was Hemingway's answer: "It's easy to write - you just sit down at the typewriter and bleed." One imagines him pricking his flesh and squeezing the wound so the blood is expressed more generously. Nabokov's answer is more interesting. He compared his novel to a brainworm, which he slowly extracted, winding the worm's end around a stick and turning it a quarter-revolution a day, hoping the worm didn't break.

All those answers are easy to dismiss, precisely because they're so negative, especially when seen from the reader's point of view. I can just hear a reader saying to an author, "You may have to write, but that doesn't mean I have to read it." Who wants to spend a few hours contemplating a pool of Papa's dried blood? Vadim Vadimovich may be as close to a god as any writer can get, but that doesn't mean I want to hold anyone's brainworm in my hands. There must be something else, some more honest reason, some better cause.

There are other, more positive answers, still not exactly right, but at least harder to dismiss. "I write to create a world." I have some sympathy for that one. Anyone who believes in the imagination should like it. There has to be a place for “The Idea of Order at Key West.” And yet, there's something inauthentic about it. In some ways we are all essentialists, we want to touch the real essence of things and of experience, we don't want it to be fabricated. As Barthelme said, "I don't want some silly red towel. I want the beautiful Snow White arse itself!" Can you honestly tell me you don't feel that way too, no matter how much you love Wallace Stevens?

Some will tell you they write to create beauty, and even if this one's unfashionable, I'm still half-tempted to believe it. They'll tell you they're not creating the world, but simply adding new things to the world. And what kind of things should be added? Beautiful, true things, exquisitely crafted objects, which reflect and illuminate our lives. There's something to be said for that. Oh, I know all the arguments against it, and they're unanswerable, but I do think there should be some room for beauty. On the other hand, remember that fish tank? There has to be more than that.

The most ethical answer treats art as a kind of documentation, fiction as reality, the poetry of witness. "This is exactly how it feels to be a human being on this earth, at this particular moment." It's why we still love Du Fu's poetry a thousand years later. We can almost walk the same path with him, live a moment in his head, see what he sees, feel what he feels. We can almost know Joyce's Dublin, or Pasternak's Moscow. We can stand in line with Akhmatova as the snow falls around her, or sit next to Forché as the Colonel speaks. It's real, and true. We only call it fiction because the language fails us. There aren't any counter-arguments for that one.

So why do I still want more? After all, for years, that was enough for me. For years, that was everything. "Write modestly, and with exactness," Berryman said. And we should, I think we all try to do that. The seen and the knowable are desperately important: Du Fu's geese, Nabokov's butterflies, Ovid's beeswax tablets. But all of us believe there's far more than those things.

You're shaking your head, but I can prove it to you. You may not be from Yoruba, you may never have heard of Lady Erzulie, but you believe objects are imbued with special significance, through ritual, or continual handling, or simple possession. Some men propose to their soon-to-be-fiancées using their Grandmothers' ring. Some people cherish rosaries blessed in rituals. I myself keep some old wooden clamps in my shop. They used to belong to my son's grandfather, and he used them for decades. I have better clamps, more modern ones, precision machined. But whenever I touch these, I almost feel as if he's there with me, working beside me, that something authentic and essential, a part of him, remains within those old pieces of wood.

We feel the same way about everything that gives us pleasure: wine, lovers, art. Our enjoyment comes, in part, from essential authenticity. If the label says Bordeaux, and we find out someone's refilled the bottle with Chilean wine, our enjoyment is diminished, even if we love Concha y Toro. We want photographs of those we love to be natural, unposed, we prefer pictures of real people, not models, and even if they must be models we want them to look authentic, and feel déçu, deceived, if they're not. If we're looking at a Raphael, part of our essential pleasure is that it's an authentic Raphael. If we find out it's a copy, even an exact copy, our pleasure is diluted.

And the same is true with writing. If we're going to be honest with our readers, if we're going to truly be witness to experience, we have to focus on that authentic essence. The surface, no matter how beautifully detailed, simply isn't enough. But what is authentic? What is essential? What is real?

I used to think I knew. And I wrote with that knowledge always in mind. Then, a few years ago, I had an experience that changed everything. It was unimaginable, and unpredicted, but so completely real it transformed my entire world. Here's what I said about it, in another journal, a year ago: "Let's forget theory for a moment, and be painfully honest: through her, I have had an experience of something beyond time and space, something infinite and eternal. It changed everything I knew. Now, everything I write is an attempt to do for the reader what she has done for me. My only goal since then is to write something which gives the reader a place to dwell, where the reader may have that same experience."

I still believe that, but I'm starting to see problems with it. First, it sounds a little too evangelical, a little too much like somebody falling off his horse on the way to Damascus, a little too close to Zen Archery. I'm not the most enlightened guy in the world. Second, it sounds a bit like the Jefferson Airplane, trying to create music that would give the experience of LSD to the uninitiated.

Like I said, I still believe it, still believe we should be making love to our readers, literally bringing love into being through our interaction, deriving our joy uniquely through our reader's jouissance. I haven't found anything to replace that, it's as close as I've gotten to what we should be doing. It's far better than brainworms or blood or imaginative fabrication. But every time I sit down to write lately, I think of a lecture I heard not long ago. The speaker focused her talk not on the Roadrunner, but on Wile E. Coyote. She was particularly interested in that moment when he's run off the cliff, when he's left solid ground and set off across the void, the moment before he realizes he's running on nothing but air, when he's still continuing to run, not knowing he's made yet another mistake.

So how am I running on air, out over that same void? What have I been missing? I'm not sure, but I have a hint, based on a conversation I only heard second hand. I was at a writers' conference last month. My wife came with me, but didn't go to any of the sessions. She dropped me off one afternoon, and noticing a woman standing near the exit, asked if she needed a ride. The woman turned out to be Annie Finch, and I would have given anything to hear the two of them talk as they drove.

Why? Imagine the scene: two women I respect, both deeply devout, but in opposing traditions, trying to find common ground. Kate mentioned that in every ritual there are at least three involved. Annie said it was the same in her tradition. Kate said that when she sang during a ceremony, her goal was to help other participants sing. Annie talked about the collective power of ritual, how she may be the focus of energy, but it was the energy others brought to the circle which helped bring a change into being.

Maybe there's something there, something far more collective, and communal, than simply the relation between reader and writer. Perhaps the purpose is larger, and far more essential, than we had imagined. It's possible true vision exists after all, but we've been going about things the wrong way. Clear sight matters, Fowles was right about that. And craft matters, so the vision can be communicated with as little distracting noise as possible. But for the work to bear fruit in the lives of others, the vision has to be shared, it must be collective, and the energy of readers, in the act of reading, must inform the writing. Just as the chanting of the circle energizes the presence in the center, in the same way the singing coming from the rows reinvigorates the song of the cantor. Nothing is an individual act. We're all in this together. And the result is a shared communion.

Today, that's my best answer to the question of why I write. I'm certain about the meaning of what I'm doing, but I've been certain before. If I had ten more years, I might develop a better vision, might even become like the Saaki, bearing the cup of wine any reader could drink. If I had twenty more years, I might truly discover the structure of desire. If I had thirty more years, I might finally understand the language of birds, and be able to sing in their voices, and so at last understand my own. But none of us know how long we have left, so I write as fast as I can, standing on the newest ground I've discovered, groping through the darkness towards something else.

W.F. Lantry, a native of San Diego, worked with Derek in Boston and Don in Houston, Jacqueline in Nice and Carolyn in San Diego. His poetry collections are
The Structure of Desire (Little Red Tree 2012) and a chapbook, The Language of Birds (Finishing Line 2011). Recent honors include the National Hackney Literary Award in Poetry, CutBank Patricia Goedicke Prize, Lindberg Foundation International Poetry for Peace Prize (in Israel), and in 2012 the Old Red Kimono and Potomac Review Poetry Prizes. His work has appeared in Descant, Asian Cha, The Linnet’s Wings and Aesthetica. He currently works in Washington, DC, and is a contributing editor of Umbrella: A Journal of Poetry & Kindred Prose. His website is: http://wflantry.com.