I’m working on the manuscript for a novel. I’m working on a lot of other things besides, to varying degrees of effectiveness. I was talking about the situation with a friend of mine earlier today, while sipping something iced and luxuriating in the sunny window of a coffee shop. He said to me, “Do what you love…”
This is one of innumerable variations on the theme of doing something you love and never working a day in your life. It’s a piece of advice handed down by elders to youth, and usually the people who say it are people who have lived lives of regret. It’s actually so common now that it appears in television commercials. So I think that normally, I would have let something like this pass without comment (and indeed, I did at the time), but it got me to thinking about why I write.
The manuscript that I’m currently grappling with is actually my third. Don’t look for me on Amazon, none of them are published, but the fact remains that they exist, and that I produced them. I have written a handful of short stories, several very short poems, and reams of narrative non-fiction, and these are just the things I still have copies of. I actually started writing longer ago than I can remember; as soon as I understood how it all worked, I started putting things to paper. And I would like to say that I do it because I love writing…
But that wouldn’t be entirely honest.
Which is not to say that I don’t love writing, not at all. But the honest reason for my writing, at least in accessible memory, is that it hurts to not do it. Some people will think that this sounds like some kind of derangement, but I’m equally certain that there are others out there who understand exactly what I mean when I say it.
The discomfort of not writing is very nearly unbearable. And it isn’t like a stubbed toe or a sunburn, where you know where the pain is coming from and can easily isolate the cause and come to understand it. The pain of not writing is a subtle, insidious, and yet inescapable thing. It’s a feeling of restlessness, malaise, and intense alienation. It is a hollow, lonely feeling. It hurts to see what I see in the world every day and to not be able to share it with people.
We’re talking about things that are not conversation material. If I run into someone I know on the street and tell them how I was seduced by last night’s sunset glowing through the leaves of the red maple tree in front of my apartment building, or how delighted I am by the fact that, in the spring, everything looks just a little different every day, well… these are delightful thoughts, but they will not support a conversation. Conversation is a collaborative art; it requires intentional participation from all parties toward a common goal. Writing, at least “creative” writing, is a personal act, requiring at least some level of intimacy and betraying some amount of personal truth. Yes, even writing fiction. When you’re writing something, you are not required to obey the unspoken pact of discourse. You don’t have to adhere to a mutually held worldview. You have the freedom to be as honest to yourself as you need to be.
This is not said to negate the importance of craft. It is only to say that without that freedom, without that spirit of truth, I start to wither.
So while it is true that I love to write, and true that I love words, the reason that I write is that I am incapable of not doing so.