Friday, June 27, 2014

Why I Write: A Confession

When did I first know I wanted to become a writer?
For me, the question, upon even a moment's thought, becomes strangely unanswerable. I realize that it is perhaps not even the right question to ask. For in my case, I can say that I have always been a writer. As soon as I learned how to write, it seems, at the age of about six, I began writing my own stories. The activity just seemed to occur naturally to me, as though it were in my blood. I was a born storyteller.

So, for me, writing is not something that I see, first and foremost, as a "career", much less a "profession". It is just something I do, as inextricably bound with my being as the color of my eyes.

Nevertheless, writing is something for which I have long felt a sense of aspiration. I am a writer; I aspire to be a great one. But why? And what does it mean to be a great writer?

Let's start with the second question. For me, being a great writer certainly does not equate to being a financially successful one. Anyone possessing even a passing familiarity with literary history knows that many, perhaps even most, of the world's great writers—which is to say the ones that we still remember today, even though long dead—were not necessarily commercial or popular successes. In some cases, true enough, they may have achieved fame, and perhaps even fortune, but in many other cases, they labored in obscurity, never to enjoy the rewards either of money or of admiration, sometimes having very little of their work published during their lifetime.

It should seem obvious that only a certain type of writer would engage in an arduous, lifelong pursuit of the craft of writing regardless of what worldly rewards may (or may not) come. Many writers, especially in today's world, very much strive for "success", defined in commercial and popular terms. And there is certainly nothing wrong with doing so.

But there are other writers who regard their writing not so much a career as a sacrament, and who see the integrity and creative freedom of their work as sacred, money and popularity be damned. There is nothing wrong with that either.

As I have already indicated, I am the second type of writer. This type of writer cannot be overly concerned about achieving fame and fortune, indeed must be willing to give up all hope or expectation of ever achieving such measures of worldly success.

Then, one may well ask, why be a writer?

Well, as I said at the beginning, for this type of writer, writing is not so much a choice—certainly not a career choice—as it is an innate drive to express oneself, to give form to one's own idiosyncratic ideas and imagination, through the medium of language. (I am certainly not saying that more commercially-minded writers do not also feel this same desire for self-expression, and that that is not an important part of the reason they choose to pursue a writing career; but I would suggest that, as evidenced by the conventional style of most commercially successful fiction, and by the prioritization of values that commercial success itself implies, the drive to achieve an almost sacred purity of unique and unrepeatable expression is not as intense for these writers as it is for the more literary-minded ones.)

So, again, the question is not exactly the right one to ask. Literary writers, in a very real sense, do not have much of a choice about being writers. They may choose to use their talents, or to neglect them; but for them, the neglect of their gifts would be far more tragic and unbearable than would be arriving at the end of their life without ever having sold a single book or having won a single fan.

This is because, in a particularly deep way, writing is intrinsic to their being, and is a fulfillment of their being. I very much feel this way myself. For many years I did not make nearly as much use of my writing talents as I knew I was capable of doing, and this caused me to live with a quiet but profound sense of desperation. No matter how successful I may have appeared in other aspects of life—getting married, earning a graduate degree and embarking on a professional career, buying a house, becoming a parent—somewhere inside I felt deeply unfulfilled because I was not writing.

This was of course no one's fault but my own. Two years ago, after my marriage fell apart (but in a way that was only indirectly related to that event), I experienced a renaissance of my literary talents, and began composing poetry and fiction in a way that was more intense and inspired than I ever had before. I found that an idea for a novel which had been lingering in my head for 13 years suddenly exploded into brilliant life, and I was amazed to watch it flow through my fingers and onto the screen, complete, in just six weeks.

The moment after I typed the last sentence of my first novel, I felt myself overcome by a rare sense of breathless euphoria. It was not simply that I had at last written a "real" novel; it had nothing to do with feeling myself that much nearer to literary fame, much less fortune. It was not even the fact that I suddenly felt, for the first time in a lifetime of writing, like a real writer, proving at least to my own satisfaction that I had some genuine literary potential. It was, rather, the fact that I had given concrete form to my highest and truest personal vision—that I had just told a story that felt, to me anyway, powerful and beautiful and original, a story that only I could have told. The emotion was uncannily similar to what I felt when my daughter was born—and indeed, in some sense, I had just given birth—I had brought into existence something that was, in fact, unique and unrepeatable, just like a human being, and that had the potential (in whatever large or small way) to change the world into which I had brought it.

In a very real sense, the writing of the novel was its own reward. Of course, novels exist to be read; if not read, they might as well not exist. And this points to what is perhaps one of the defining features of literary writing—it is, above all else, not a commercial product, but a deeply meaningful and significant communication. I write because I wish to communicate, and because I wish to communicate something important. I am much better at expressing myself in writing than in speech, but that is not why I write. As I keep saying, I cannot help but write. It just so happens that writing is the vehicle through which I can most effectively express what I think and what I feel, and to show other people who I really am inside.

And I think part of my elation over completing The Bluebird of Happiness in the summer of 2012 was that I had at last given voice, in a much more powerful way than I ever had, to who I really am. That certainly does not mean that the novel is autobiographical. It just means that, no matter how fictional and imaginative it may be, it expresses something deeply real and vital about who I am. My goal was not to write a bestseller but simply to express myself in the truest and most powerful way I knew how. And when I reached the end, I knew beyond any doubt that I had done just that; and, for that reason, I felt immensely successful, and I exulted in my success. I had done what I had always dreamed of doing.


Almost two years have passed now since that glorious day, and the novel remains unpublished. This is largely because I have made hardly any effort at all to submit it to publishers. A small number of people have read the manuscript, and I know that at least one or two of them have been sincerely, strongly affected by it. I do not think it is a matter of pride as much as a sense of responsibility to my talents that makes me feel it is vitally important for me to have the novel published, to get it out there in a place where as many people as possible can have the opportunity to read it.

I am aware, perhaps too aware, of the novel's flaws (or at least what some may regard as flaws—I suppose it is a matter of artistic judgment and taste), but at this point I do not wish to attempt to change them, even if they are flaws. I do not mind having certain types of flaws in my novels to the extent that they may be seen as revealing flaws in the characters themselves, who I allow to tell most of the story in their own words, in their own way. Or, to the extent that the flaws in the novel can be regarded as my own, I do not entirely mind letting them be—as someone who has battled the crippling disease of perfectionism his whole life, I have become something of a champion of the strange beauty and power of imperfection in art.

But, while I cannot discount the fear of criticism and rejection (even as proud and cocky as I can sometimes, half-jokingly, be about my own talents), I do not think that is the fundamental reason for my procrastination. I think that, more to the point, I have a deep lack of faith in the publishing industry as it exists today. It is not even a matter of doubting that I will ever be able to make a living as a writer—no matter how talented I may be, no matter how well received by critics and reviewers. It has more to do with feeling that I, and my work, do not fit in anywhere in the current publishing system (other than, possibly, the relatively underground exposure of an indie publisher, or the oblivion of self-publishing).

On the one hand, I feel that Bluebird is perhaps just a little too strange and idiosyncratic to be truly popular (and therefore to seem like a good bet for a major publisher to take a chance on in today's bestseller-driven publishing climate). On the other hand, the story may seem perhaps just a little too narrative and emotional to satisfy many in the literary avant-garde. At least that is my own perception. I did not write to satisfy any particular audience, only to be true to my own vision. I expect that each of my succeeding novels may very well appear a bit more outré than the last; Rainbow, my second novel which is currently in production, is already a shade or two stranger (even to me) than its predecessor, and I feel that many of the other ideas I have for novels may very well prove, once written, to be outright bizarre, perhaps even incomprehensible, to most readers. I am not trying to be weird just for the sake of being weird; it is just that writing the kinds of stories I really want to write, and being true to the stories as they develop in my mind, turns out to be quite unlike most other stories that are being written, and certainly unlike the ones that are popular.

For this reason, I do not expect ever to become a popular (and therefore not a commercially successful) writer. But that has never been my goal. As I stated above, my goal is to be a great writer. And the fact is that great writers, though they may seem conventional to us (but only because we are familiar with their names and are taught them, sometimes, in school—not because we have actually read their works, which would no doubt shake us out of our complacency), are great in large part because they are strange. "Strange", of course, simply means that which is not familiar to us. And great writers are great because they write something new, something that no one else has ever written, something that no one else ever could write. So, for that reason, although I would never be so unseemly as to pronounce myself a great writer (I only said that I aspire to be one), I do feel that I at least have the potential to become one, if I continue to develop my talents and remain faithful to my gifts (and true to my vision). If nothing else, I feel that I am far more likely to become a great writer (meaning one who is read long after I am gone) than a "successful" one, if successful means selling a lot of books and having a large fan base.

In one of my blog posts from 2012, as I neared the end of Bluebird, I mentioned a certain philosopher named Gadamer who spoke of reading as producing a "fusion of horizons" between the author and the reader. That idea really speaks to me because, as I said, for me writing is primarily my way of communicating with the world. (As Emily Dickinson so beautifully put it, "This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me.")

According to Gadamer's view, when I read, say, "Ode on Melancholy", a fusion is created between my "horizon" (or experience) and that of a certain Englishman named John Keats. In other words, despite the fact that we are separated by 200 years, Mr. Keats and I, in that moment, arrive at some shared experience, some shared understanding, of the world, and of life. To put it in (quite properly, in this case) poetic and romantic language, you might say that John's soul meets mine, and we have a moment of shared humanity, of brotherhood, of friendship in the dark world. That is indeed the true magic of literature. Writers you love are not just distant celebrities; they are friends—which is true even if they can never know you.

I often think, more than I do about any fantasy of having an ardent but small group of fans in the present day (as I have always imagined myself becoming a cult writer more than a literary superstar), those who may read my stories in future centuries. I imagine some other solitary soul, perhaps feeling lost in the world, coming across an old beat-up copy of The Bluebird of Happiness (or, perhaps more likely—though who really knows?—an electronic edition), and setting out to read it.

I imagine that she (I say she because, if the future is anything like the present, the majority of fiction readers will be women), this lone reader, as she quietly but raptly listens to the story I am telling her, will come to see something of the truth, and the goodness, and the beauty, that I, this man long since vanished from the earth, like a ghost bearing a message from the mists of time, am attempting to communicate to her. She will no doubt find the story a little strange, perhaps even more than my contemporaries did; but that is part of the experience of reading true literature. It expands you, startles you, makes you see things in a new and fresh way. I imagine that she might, at moments, and despite the distance in time and culture, laugh, and at other moments cry—both responses evidence of our common humanity, despite whatever separates us.

But most importantly, in the process of reading my long and complicated story about a group of imaginary people (who will nevertheless come to seem very real to her), her soul will be moved, and ultimately transformed. And when she reaches the end—perhaps finding herself emotionally devastated, or perhaps only quietly but deeply touched—she will feel that she has known me, and that I have told her something that is of vital and profound importance just for her. And, even more than knowing me—this stranger from the 21st century who has somehow, mysteriously, become her intimate friend—she will know herself just a little better; and she will feel just a little bit closer to understanding the strange, fearsome, but beautiful world we have the privilege of sharing; and she will feel, wonderfully, not quite so lost in it.

It is for her that I write.