I’ve been rereading Jonathan Franzen’s essay “Why Bother?” in his collection How To Be Alone. I’d specifically picked it up again because I’ve been asking myself again why I want to write. Despite the increasing proliferation of MFA programs and conferences, it’s a profession that seems to promise obscurity and a second, ‘real’ job to most who attempt it. In fact, you could argue that MFAs and conferences have made a life in writing more difficult as everyone struggles to make their voice heard despite the ocean of people who call themselves writers. What’s one more drop in this sea? Why struggle forward in this calling when the future is so uncertain?
The answer for me may be partially in this essay. Franzen talks to Shirley Brice Heath, now of Brown University, about how people grow up to become readers. Heath says that for most people having one or more parents that read is enough to encourage a life-long passion for reading. But for others (the so-called social-isolate reader), the child feels himself different from everyone around him, so his/her conversations tend to be with the authors he or she reads. It suggests reading as a palliative (though not a curative) for the particular social condition of isolation. Heath also says that these kinds of readers usually grow up to become writers, because this type of communication is so important to them from a young age.
I grew up in a small town where everyone mostly worked with their hands, either as a farmer or a tool maker. There seemed to be no need for reading and writing; I might have just as easily been born with an extra head. I spent most of my time with books, and the connection was emphatic and could not easily be broken. My father used to drive the dirt roads at 50 mph, spewing gravel and dust in his wake, surging down hills and sliding around curves. I would be bouncing in the back seat, oblivious to anything else but the slow progression of hobbits toward Mordor. Neither my father nor my mother was literary-minded. But reading seemed to me as important as eating, and I often combined the two, linking sustenance with sustenance.
You cannot write for anyone but yourself. Once you close the door, it’s just you in there. But sometimes I think I could write for myself at 14, a hapless target walking through the hallways of my school, the streets of my town, the rooms of my home desperate for someone like me. I think I must still exist out there somewhere, maybe in Nebraska or Cleveland, that I’m still frustrated by how hard it is to communicate with the humans around me, but I love to read. The chance to talk to myself at that age, in that dire predicament, is part of why I want to write.
Except what do I say to myself? Many times I greet the blank page with dread. I think that after two decades I don’t have anything he needs to know, or if I do, I won’t be able to say it correctly. But I’m learning to try. I’ve met many writers in the past year, and the thing they seem to have in common is an elementary courage. The courage to face the typewriter or the computer day after day. The courage to make it something that has never been said before but something everyone will recognize. The courage to keep on when nothing seems to be working, the courage to take a stack of manuscript and put it in a mailbox, email it or hand it to someone and say: “Look at this. I made it.” I have borrowed this courage in small bits from these writers and sown it together into a coat that is ill-fitting but serves my need to go into the room and close the door.
Couple the will for a dialogue with your reader (who is really yourself) with the determination that creating and saying out of thin air aren’t going to be easy, and you have Inspiration for your Art. A reason to sit in the chair because you’ve found the way to the rich ore of what William Faulkner called “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” It won’t be obvious all the time, but at times your vocation will seize you and you will feel a rightness, a neat slotting of yourself into a gap in the world that needs filled. No workshop will give you that. No conference will give you that. It is yours alone. However, they will give you opportunities to meet others like you. Strange isolate beings, half-not-there, some vital part of them always gone fishing in fantasy’s watering hole, but willing perhaps to stay and talk to you about writing. To lecture a bit, commiserate, and buck you up. And then at some point you’ll see a mad light come into their eyes, and you’ll start to really listen up, because you know what you are about to hear is the big secret. They’re going to tell you why they do it.
Why do you do it? Reply to this post or email Aaron at acfalveyatasudotedu.