​Why I Write

Posted by Tim Gilmer in Life After Paralysis on May 25, 2021 # Lifestyle

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Maya Angelou

In my previous blog, I wrote about the need for continual adaptation. An important part of that process is knowing yourself — why you do what you do, why you think the way you think.

My choosing to be a writer is intimately connected with my disability, which began at the age of 20. At first, as a new wheelchair user, I didn’t feel comfortable with my place in this culture, and I wouldn’t until I had unloaded the story of my loss from the catastrophic plane crash that took the life of a good friend and left me paralyzed. While my story is unique, it shares a great deal with others’ stories — their losses from death, disability, divorce and other life-changing events. Just as war vets with PTSD benefit from telling their stories, we all grow positively from unloading stored grief, stress, and negative associations. This can be a long process, a gradual release over time that involves multiple instances of self-discovery.

Tim holding laptopAs a writer, I cannot satisfactorily understand and come to terms with a life-changing tragic event until I find the right words that express all the effects it has had and continues to have on me. We need not only to write them down but to hear them, either by reading them aloud to ourselves several times or to someone else. And all of this needs time to sink in, to be processed. I’ve found that my writing needs many revisions, like talk therapy, to reap the true benefit of unloading a story, the whole memory complete with important details.

It can take years to discover the right words that reveal all of what has been kept inside for so long. And it can take many forms. Memories and lessons can be made into stories or poems or autobiography or fiction based on your personal truth. Eventually, you will see, hear, remember and feel countless revelations that, when released, are packed with stored emotion. In other words, writing can be therapeutic.

I started with writing poems. Each poem was a journey of seeking how to express some nameless mix of emotions. They were mostly bad poems that almost always failed to express what I was feeling, so I kept writing. I wrote poems, then fictional stories and sometimes true stories disguised as fiction, then screenplays, each one unique but with some underlying connection to my personal story.

I had been sending short fiction to The Atlantic in hopes of catching the eye of C. Michael Curtis, the longtime venerated fiction editor. Even though most of my stories were not like the stories I would read in The Atlantic, Curtis responded personally with a brief note telling me succinctly why each story was not right for the magazine. Sometimes it was a single sentence, sometimes a brief paragraph, but each note clearly pinpointed what was missing. Twice he suggested other respected editors that might be interested in a particular story.

Then I learned Curtis would be the main speaker at an annual meeting of the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference near Seattle. I entered their short fiction contest by submitting a story about my first week in the hospital following my plane crash, the most tragic and dramatic week of my life.

When I went to the conference, I was surprised the moment I learned that my story had been chosen for the third-place award in short fiction, the first one awarded. I did not expect it. I felt truly elated hearing the story’s title announced with the first words out of the emcee’s mouth.

I had scheduled a small group meeting with Curtis at the conference. After the meeting, I was able to walk with him (rolling in my wheelchair). We talked as we headed for the auditorium where he was scheduled to deliver the main address. I wanted to ask if he had read my story, if he in fact, was the final judge, but I chose not to put him on the spot.

As usual, at the auditorium, my choices of where I could sit in my wheelchair were severely limited. A few hundred folding chairs were arranged in a solid block with no aisles, so I had to choose a corner spot and position my chair there. Uncharacteristically, I chose the first row, right corner, because I wanted Curtis to see me, and I wanted to hear him clearly. Usually, I wanted to remain anonymous in the back of a group. After his opening introductory remarks, he began by asking the audience why we write. He let us think about that for a few moments, then stated his main theory: We write, he said, because each of us carries with us a wound of some kind. It can be physical, psychic, emotional, even spiritual – or any combination of these.

As he completed that statement, he looked directly at me, sitting in front of him. In that moment, feeling conspicuous as the only wheelchair user in the audience, I realized that my motivation for writing begins with and will most likely end with my decades-long quest to communicate to others the breadth and depth of my personal tragedy, as well as my successes and failures in dealing with it. Everything I write eventually draws from that single moment that changed my life forever, a moment I have been dealing with every day for more than 50 years.

More important than recognition or achievement, for those of us who choose to write, the process itself can be an important tool that unlocks our potential and reveals a sense of belonging. At times, for me, it feels almost like praying as I seek to connect with not only myself but also with others — their hearts, souls and minds.

More on the therapeutic benefits of writing:




Tim Gilmer graduated from UCLA in the late-1960’s, added an M.A. from the Southern Oregon University in 1977, taught writing classes in Portland for 12 years, then embarked on a writing career. After becoming an Oregon Literary Fellow, he went on to join New Mobility magazine in 2000 and edited the magazine for 18 years. He has published upwards of 100 articles, 200 columns, occasional movie reviews and essays. He and Sam, his wife and companion of 47 years, also own and operate an organic farm south of Portland, where they live with their daughter and son-in-law, four grandsons, and a resident barn owl. An excerpt from a memoir about his early post-SCI years, as part of a compendium of his writing over the past 30 years, can be read at his website — All You Need

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.