“The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for the rest of your life. And the most important thing is, it must be something you cannot possibly do.”
What propels a literary life? What drives the writer to the page, day after day?
It’s a common enough question for those of us who write as a way of life, though I think the answers must vary across a wide spectrum. But is there a core response that most writers share?
I can only begin in my own experience, layered as it is with the thousands of writers who have composed the books of my library, who have been my teachers, and whom I have taught and coached. One thing I’m sure of—we would not do the work of writing if we did not fundamentally enjoy placing one word after the other, threading meaning through symbols, listening to language resonate in the auditorium of the inner ear. I can’t imagine a person struggling forward with writing without an addiction to this ready pleasure.
Let’s not consider yet what the writing adds up to, or whether it finds audience, or even whether it would be considered any good by a reader. That all comes later if it comes at all, outside the experience of composing. At the core, we must like writing things down, assembling the pages. We must like it more than almost any other thing we do alone because we surely must do it alone, and a lot of it.
I remember discovering this trait in myself at about the age of ten. I can place myself at a desk with a notebook and a pencil, in a particular room in a particular town. I even recall that it was hot the day I discovered all this because even now, I can feel the pencil slipping in my sweaty little hand when I first felt so energized, broken open and spilling, as though I’d found my self. I remember my frustration because the pencil wouldn’t scribe over the paper that had buckled with moisture where I’d held it down with my left hand—and I was anxious to keep going. I remember the low-buzz thrill of that moment because it is exactly the same one I have right now as I write these sentences. Nothing has changed, at that level. Call it by other names, place it in other contexts, but I suspect any writer who reads this will recognize what I’m describing.
So I’d argue it is this very sensation, accessed only through this specific activity, that draws a writer into a larger writing life and keeps him or her coming back, day after day, all through the years and decades as everything else changes hue and flow. Once thus sensitized and engaged, a writer experiences life through this lens. The longer we do it, the more deeply the connection is ingrained in our very neurons, the more responsive to the world become the sensory receptors of our bodies, the more tuned becomes our limbic system. We grow more acclimated, more addicted, to writing—and soon enough we perceive all that is around us as our subject. We sweep through the sea of each day like a baleen whale, maw wide open, taking our nourishment in great gulps.
We cannot write about everything that happens, but everything that happens informs the next thing we write, and the next. Each moment of life is material. That’s a writing life.
Poets, memoirists, essayists, novelists, and storywriters—each has a channel into which they direct the flow, but all writers must pay attention to new experience and direct it toward creation. Even when we evoke our past, it is the present we write of—the present memory of that past. We create the made thing, so it exists now, as its own object. So here is another fundamental aspect of the writing life—that writers' creations are the evidence of our pleasure, our obsessions, while also being our gift back to the world.
It doesn’t matter if the world is listening. I’ve written five books and have met some people who read them. The fact is, those who most closely understood and enjoyed a book are the ones who always say the same thing—a simple acknowledgement of their enjoyment. I’ve never had a long conversation with anyone about anything I’ve written and published. I don’t want to.
Yesterday I watched a documentary describing the earliest record of human artistic expression, including the appearance of handprints painted in relief on cave walls in southern France more than 30,000 years ago. I mean, these people are dead dead dead. What do they care that we’re making or viewing a documentary about their symbols? I care because it tells me something—that I am connected to them by a legacy of creativity, and that participating in that very human activity by writing books affirms my aliveness in the world, just as their art did for them. It locates and documents the experience of being human. My writing life is a very human life, and if anyone ever found an affirmation in that, I trust it would be a good thing for them. I’m unlikely to know or be affected by it, even if I am responsible for a piece of that experience.
Which brings me to my final observation about a shared experience of the writing life. We write for ourselves, because we like to do it, because we must keep doing it, but the writing is for others. Ignore this at your own peril. I have a terrifically hard time conveying this to my students. Every year, every classroom, I try to find ways to make this lesson clear: the writing will be best if it fulfills this purpose. Poems and stories and essays that only meet the first criteria—pleasing us as we make them—are plants that sprout but bear no blossoms or fruit. Get stuck there and you may have a writing life, but an incomplete one.
It’s the work of a lifetime, a writing lifetime, to perfect the art of reaching and moving readers we’ll never know. I’m happy to have this work. So I leave this discussion with one more quote from Henry Moore: “The creative habit is like a drug. The particular obsession changes, but the excitement, the thrill of your creation lasts.”