“Man! This guy can make a story about anything!”
“That doesn’t mean he has to.”
“I have a feeling it does.”
This three-line exchange at the end of a post concerning my recent “peeing in a cup” difficulties prompted regular reader JED to write in:
“Your final statements got me thinking. Is that why you became a writer – because you have to make a story about everything? Is it the drive to write that makes you a writer? What happens if you don’t get to write for an extended period of time? Do you feel miserable or just guilty?
First of all, let me confess why I appended that abbreviated exchange to the end of that story. It occurred to me that an extended “Pee Cup” anecdote was embarrassingly even more trivial than the stories I usually tell. As a result, drawing from my sitcom experience, I decided to “hang a lantern” on that perceived liability, a literary strategy by which, in this case, one makes light of the story’s ultra-triviality before my audience does, thus blunting the criticism while at the same time showing what a cool, self-aware fellow I am by pre-emptively proclaiming to the audience, “Yes, I know.”
That’s why that’s in there – a tactical cover-up for my fear of having failed to meet even the minimal standards of narrative worthwhiledness. Not in a big way. I didn’t poop on the page. But it felt like something needed to be said.
And now, my response to JED’s questions, introduced, not surprisingly I imagine, by a story.
Once, years ago, before my professional writing life began, I was abruptly stricken with the urgency to uncover the green Olivetti portable typewriter my Uncle Irving had given me for my Bar Mitzvah, sit down in front of it, and record a recent past experience of an unsharable nature.
This was a bizarre and never felt-before impulse. It was not a story I would be showing to anyone. And yet, I found myself drivingly compelled to commit it to paper.
So there I was, obliviously tapping away. And when I finished – I recall this very vividly – I just sat there, eerily quiet and emotionally spent. Then, out of the blue, I proclaimed out loud but to myself as there was nobody else in the vicinity –
(If that private proclamation did not tell me I was a writer – and, at the time and for a long time thereafter, I had no idea – it should have.)
That, fundamentally, is why you write. Or paint. Or architect. Or tag the underpass of a bridge. Or carve your initials on a rock. Or a lot of other stuff I can’t think of right now.
To be immortal.
Whether the concept of “leaving your mark” makes any reasonable sense whatsoever is immaterial. At the moment in question, that’s exactly how it feels. Otherwise, what am I blurting, “I’m immortal” for?
“Hey, ‘World That Comes After Me’ – I was here. And I am leaving this behind to prove it.”
Is what you’re saying.
Once you begin immortalizing yourself, the “Immortalizational Impulse” gets into your blood, and you just keep doing it. You are also hedging your bets. It seems wise to crank out a few “extras” in case the other ones get lost.
Continuing with JED’s questions, I don’t think, for me at least, it is ever a question of feeling guilty if I don’t write – unless the wellbeing of others depends on it and I am not coming through. Nor do I think I’d feel miserable if I didn’t write. Although, when I hear about writers compiling a bibliography of thirty or forty books, I have a feeling they might. (It is not uncommon to hear about a lot of drinking between projects. It’s like, “Well if I’m not writing, at least I am decimating my liver.”)
When I’m on vacation and not blogging, I feel exhilaratingly liberated from writing, recharging my batteries for when I return to the (always delightful) daily grind. Although I confess that, since I committed myself to this enterprise, I am rarely without an observations-accumulating pen and paper, obligatory note-taking for future writing assignments down the line.
The thing that interests me more than the instinctive, obsessive, habitual or all three impulses to write is the idiosyncratic content of the writing. For me, writing has to be meaningful – and I include “for pure entertainment” as a category of “meaningful” – otherwise you’re just wasting people’s time. And unproductively tiring their eyes.
It is not just “writing for the sake of writing.” You have this thing that happened to you or an interesting thought that came to mind, that you want to pass along to others, motivated by the unspoken implication that something in there that might be useful to them, as they traverse the often pot-holey terrain of human existence.
What is the message that I am moved to communicate – not necessarily directly, but inferentially, and with hopefully some accompanying merriment along the way?
The message is simply this:
“I’m a mess. And I still did okay.”
That’s the message: That being a mess is not necessarily a deal-breaker. You can still get a surprising amount of stuff done.
It may be harder when you’re a mess. It may take a little longer. And you may not go quite as far as you might have if you weren’t a mess. But with a substantial measure of passion and perseverance, even a “mess” such as myself can get someplace.
That, for me, is what writing is: The compelling impulse to write and the insistent urgency to write that.
Bottom Line: Do I need to write?
It appears that I do.
What else am I going to do?
Besides, somebody might read something I wrote after I’m gone, and that would make me immortal.
It occurs to me I may have given JED somewhat more than he was bargaining for.