What It Means To Write

I think the question is often, “Why do I write?” Countless authors have penned statements under it, have analyzed the process of writing and its psycho-social effects on the writer. I came across these excerpts from a Joy Williams essay in an article in The Atlantic:

It’s become fashionable these days to say that the writer writes because he is not whole, he has a wound, he writes to heal it, but who cares if the writer is not whole, of course the writer is not whole, or even particularly well. There is something unwholesome and destructive about the entire writing process.  […] Why am I so isolate in this strange place? Why is my sweat being sold as elixir? And how have I become so enmeshed with works, mere works, phantoms?

and…

A writer starts out, I think, wanting to be a transfiguring agent, and ends up usually just making contact, contact with other human beings. This, unsurprisingly, is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough.

I think Joy Williams here hits the nail pretty hard on the head. I think that writing is an inherently surgical process. We write, in a way, to connect with other human beings at the deepest possible level that we can, which ironically imposes upon us a crude isolation. In this unerring quest to communicate, to make communion with others (in the way of Leo Tolstoy in “What is Art?”), we disconnect and delve our whole mental and physical and spiritual attentions into fictions and imaginings and the intra-phenomenal worlds of our own minds. This is my shameful confession: I write for love. I wonder how many other artists out there think, “I’ll worry about being with people when I’m done, when I’m famous, when I’ve won a Pulitzer. Because then the whole world will know me, inside out, and it’ll be impossible to not love me, because my soul has become part of them too.”

A recent interview on The Colbert Report with David Byrne and St. Vincent had Colbert asking:

Are you one of those artists who has trouble with the idea that you might actually be ordinary? Because, no, no… I don’t mean that as a bad thing. I mean that most of humanity — and I asked you this last time — humanity is what we think of as common or ordinary. I think artists are sometimes trapped by their need to be extraordinary. And they distance themselves sometimes from other people.

And yes, I think this too is part of it. There is this inner demon that whispers, Until everyone loves you, you are unworthy of love. I think this need goes much farther than what most people need in their lives for happiness. A writer’s need for love is entwined with a writer’s need to be extraordinary. It makes us a lonely people, especially as we’re getting started. I can even relate my need for isolation as a writer with my failures in romance. On speaking of romantic relationships, again in an article in The Atlantic, Junot Diaz says:

There’s a point when you’re with somebody in a relationship where the decision comes down to their love or your mask. And by “the mask,” we mean your terror in exposing yourself, your terror in making yourself vulnerable to this other person. […] Being in love means you actually have to be in the game. And to be in the game means that you have to actually risk losing, right? It’s not a game if you can’t lose. It’s something else.

Writing, I think, is the act of opening yourself up to the entire world, exposing your vulnerability with the hope and the trust of being accepted, being loved and adored. I’ve heard many times that writing is “an act of love,” and I believe this is what is meant by that. It is not an act of love by virtue of the love of writing — the act of pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) — but rather the sacrificial, frightening and vulnerable part of love and relationships. It’s the exposure, the terrifying degree of trust that is requisite for that sort of transparency.

The unfortunate consequence is the isolation it requires, the walls that we have — intentionally or otherwise — built up around ourselves. Writing is a struggle. Rejections, at first, are as heartbreaking as failed relationships. You spend a few months in this optimistic dreamland, you imagine a future with yourself and this beautiful, amazing, prestigious journal … and then you’re told it’s just not going to work out. It could be for any reason, but most often, you’re just told that you’re not what they’re [she’s] looking for. You have good qualities, you’re a great person, but the chemistry isn’t there. You lack electricity between you. Rejection makes you heart-sore, a little angry, can spiral you into endless cycles of self-pity and shame and the constant thought of not being good enough.

And maybe that’s why writing is so lonely. In many ways, it is like being perpetually single. As soon as you do get accepted somewhere, you celebrate for a bit, and then it’s back to the grind. That lonely soul-crushing grind. You go on and on and on, because what writing means is a life where you are constantly and relentlessly in pursuit of love.

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