It is one of the greatest acts of empathy to tell someone else’s story. We meet stories every day—and, at least for me, many of them are still so surprising. I believe strongly that when we aren’t sure what to do, how to respond to someone or to something happening in our lives, the answer is nearly always to offer understanding and kindness. Writing (and in turn reading) is a type of practice of this empathy. The first way we really learn to try on another’s experiences—the darkest ones, the brightest ones, the most hilarious or ridiculous or shocking ones—is through storytelling. What a humbling gift to be a part of that journey for someone else.

All over the world, the people whose voices are the most significant, the most treasured, are often the ones other people are working the hardest to silence. I understand that I am privileged—as a white, middle-class, college-educated American (though less so as a woman)—to have a voice, and sometimes I’m also fortunate enough to have a forum for broadcasting that voice. It is my ethical responsibility to use it. This doesn’t mean that, in relationship to the rest of the world, every single story I write is important. But it might be important somewhere, to someone.

For that reason, it doesn’t matter to me if what I write ends up pinned to a community bulletin board or posted to a blog with 25 followers or printed in The New Yorker. (Please don’t misunderstand this as some type of false humility, I would obviously love to be published in The New Yorker.) What I mean is that both have value. Certainly, the farther reach something has, the better chance there is of it creating a meaningful impact. But this doesn’t mean that a journal with a readership of 500 isn’t still worth our best writing, that those readers aren’t somehow equally in need of that same meaningful impact.

This isn’t to say, though, that I write exclusively for a reader. For a long time, my writing has been a selfish act—something I’ve done in large part for myself. It’s my way of processing my environment: the delicate beauty, the breathtaking devastation, the surprising cruelty. It’s how I work on my own self-betterment, my own growth and understanding. There has been pain in my life, but also great joy. It feels important to me to chase both of these extremes in my work, to capture their symbiotic coexistence, and it also helps me stay grounded in that cosmic balance. Sometimes terrible things will happen. Sometimes wonderful things will happen. Keep going.

There are really two contexts for answering the question Why I Write: Before motherhood and after it. I am a feminist and a humanist, and I am unequivocally in full support of parents continuing to develop and engage their own autonomous identity separate from their role as a caregiver. But this is not what motherhood has been like for me. I lost my own mother when I was young, and I can’t deny that this loss is something that drives much of my writing (and probably a considerable part of my life outside of that as well). But in this new role of mother, there is no me anymore without my daughter. I’m not religious, but it’s hard to escape the obvious symbolism that I grew my little girl inside of my body from a literal part of myself. How are our beings not twinned or mirrored in some way? How can my identity not be tied inextricably to her existence? So a very large part of why I write now is to leave a trail for her. It becomes another way of knowing me, in case one day I’m not here to show her myself—in case she loses me before she’s ready.

The truth is, it’s never been write or die for me. (Or maybe it’s just easy to say that because I’ve always had the opportunity to do it.) But I think that if I wasn’t writing, that energy would simply be born again elsewhere. Maybe I would run more. Maybe I would drink more. Who can say? It’s hard work, and most of the time, it’s frustrating as hell. There would be easier crafts to pursue, but the most appealing thing to me about writing is that there’s no end. There’s always more to learn, new forms and voices and narratives with which to experiment, different milestones to reach, a constant push for growth and strength and improvement. It can never get boring. There’s always something new to work toward—someone else’s story that will better the world for being told.

Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University (’10). Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in The Iowa Review, Brevity, Narrative Magazine, Word Riot, Hunger Mountain, Rock & Sling, and As It Ought to Be, among others. Her writing has been recognized as a Dan Rudy prize winner, a Glimmer Train honorable mention, and the second-place winner of Narrative Magazine’s 2011 30 Below contest. Her chapbook of war stories, "Casualties," was named the first runner-up in this year's RopeWalk Press Editor's Fiction Chapbook Prize and is forthcoming this fall. She writes and teaches in Southern Indiana, where she lives with her incredible partner and their amazing, hilarious daughter. Indulge her self-involvement at

Photo Credit: Megan Butto