If one is at a social gathering, say a holiday party of friends and acquaintances, introductions having been made and the inevitable discussion about one’s interests and hobbies comes up, admitting that you “like to write” borders on the level of awkwardness as admitting you like to glue Kewpie dolls together into large pyramids in your garage. Weird and perhaps harmless, but nonetheless antisocial.
What is it about writing that, unless you’re a published author with titles on the New York Times bestseller lists and making gazillions in royalties, admitting you do it places you in a category somewhere above politicians and telemarketers but below tax accountants and postal workers?
Perhaps this is why whenever I’m asked what I like to do I usually say something like, “Watch sitcoms.” It may not have more socially redemptive value, but at least my interlocutors understand that and can pigeonhole me among the “safe” nerdy set.
I have long aspired to “be a writer.” When I was in first grade I recall riding in our family’s dark green (so dark green it was almost black) Pontiac station wagon. To a first grader, it felt like a land ark. Now granted this memory comes down corridors nearly forty years long, but as I remember it I had in my lap a Big Chief tablet and one of those pencils the size of horses legs. I interrupted whatever I was doing at the time and asked my mom, translated into forty-four year old speak: “Will a publisher accept my manuscript if it’s written in pencil on Big Chief tablet paper?” Being a father of two young and precocious girls I understand what goes on in the mind of a parent while driving children on errands in the car and simultaneously running through mental checklists and responding to the random chatter of said children. I do not know whether or not my mom actually heard the question, and if so whether or not she actually took it seriously, and if so whether she had any definite knowledge of the subject. But I do remember the answer: “I think so.” Whether by intent or happenstance, the answer my mother gave set within my little first grade heart a desire that has never left. To be a writer.
One does not harbor such a desire however before one discovers how awkward admitting such a desire is. If one does not have enough courage–and I have not down all these long decades–to admit the desire, one will keep it buried, unless pried out by trusted friends or canny junior high English teachers.
But even if one hides the desire and the wish, it is another matter to fail to practice it. There is, I think, something of a compulsion for writers to write. At least this is how I’ve experienced it. The delicious delectibility of how words sound, how they sound together, the smell and look and feel of a printed page. The heft of a book in one’s hands. Writing, as all the arts such as painting and astronomy, is very sensory.
If one lacks the courage to admit the desire to write and yet indulges the compulsion, writing becomes a very lonely art. There’s a beauty to this, and a necessity. But it is also fraught with dangers. Writing is expression. To spend long hours talking only to oneself leads to manifestos and bombmaking, or by grace to the monastery. What will save a writer is the same thing, the only thing, that saves all of us. He needs love. If not a lover, he needs someone who can come alongside him and love his art and love him for his art. It is best at least in terms of his art, if this person brings nothing more than an eagerness to read. Critics do not function well here. A mentor is best of all.
So love bids the writer to come out into the daylight. But it does not prepare the cowardly writer for the next round of questions. Because once having found the courage to admit, “I am a writer,” then one’s interlocutors force one to validate and to justify one’s existence.
You know the question: “That’s great. What have you published?”
Because everyone knows you are only a writer if you get published.
This is not entirely untrue, of course. Every writer wants to get published, to see his creation enjoyed by others. Every writer lives with the fear that he is not “good enough” to get published. Every writer continues to write, following rejection after rejection, because he is alive and full of joy when he writes. That is why he writes. That is his sole and necessary validation and justification.
But still to answer no is a hard thing. Is the lack of publication because one is “too good”? He is a fledgling Nabakov or Joyce whose art is so far beyond the current milieu that he is misunderstood. Of course, the unpublished writer knows deep inside that this isn’t the case. And if his interlocutor would only read his work, the truth would soon be revealed. Or, and the bogeyman of the quiet hours pokes out his head, is the lack of publication simply because the writer isn’t “good enough”? Affirming that one writes merely for the joy of writing is tantamount to admitting: Yeah, I suck.
At last, though, one has gotten past that scraping thorn patch. Then comes the other inevitable question: What do you write? Here a writer longs to say something like: history, or literary fiction or even self-help books. Those at least have some cache. But what does one do if he says, “Oh, a little science fiction or a little fantasy,” or, God save him!, “thrillers.”
Well, now one is not only not good enough to be published, but now one is not even good enough to write popular fiction.
It’s a crazy world for a writer. The only way to address the insanity is to just keep writing. Shut out the voices and the fear, the criticism and the awkward party moments. To embrace the joy. Because really, as any writer knows, it really, truly is because of the joy that writers write.
This Joy is how writers know they were born to write. The floodgates of heaven open and raging torrents of joy flood the soul. Providence may make it possible that the joy is shared on the printed page. But if not, still the joy will be shared. Because no writer can contain that much joy. Having arisen from the keyboard, it drips from him, and he showers it on those he loves.