This originally appeared on my old blog, The Bastardized Version. Recently, especially after yesterday’s post where we narrowly averted a self-publishing kerfuffle, I’ve been thinking about why artists keep striving despite the odds and I went back to read it. And, I must say, I was actually moved by something I had written. It’s like somebody else wrote this piece.
I am a writer.
Strange to type that, but there it is. At varying points of my life – and even currently – I could make many similar statements:
I am a father.
I am a husband.
I am a musician.
I am a designer.
I am an artist.
All of these vocations (and responsibilities) are hard. Harder than most people who don’t do them – or don’t do them well – can believe. And success at any of those things is subjective, fleeting, and always up for review.
In the course of these human events, we fathers, mothers, wives and husbands, musicians, designers, artists, and novelists have to ask ourselves why we keep doing it. Because it is fucking hard, a hard and thankless road for long stretches, miles upon miles, and many times during the journey it would be easier just to abandon the path and walk away.
But we don’t.
Asking why someone writes seems infinitely more interesting than the mundane, nuts-and-bolts, cobbler’s question of how to write. The question of why I write isn’t one I could’ve addressed a year ago. Or, hearing the question, I would’ve said, “To get published.” But, now, since that goal has been achieved – and do not let me downplay the magnitude of that feat, for any writer; getting your first novel published is like broaching some infinitely high plateau, pulling yourself up and over the rim, scraped knuckles and barked shins and all, into the thin and vaporous air. A fantastic view, but there’s still a ways to go. We have monstrous appetites, mankind does, and we’ll storm heaven itself and overthrow God and still never be satisfied.
Writing just to get published seems like saying I listen to music just to keep myself from boredom. I sing to keep myself from suicide. The inner workings of writers – and most artists, though I’m just speaking for myself – are labyrinthine and convoluted, motivated by obscure forces, and writing just to get published doesn’t ring true, not for me.
So, why do I write, now that it’s not just to get published?
Is it for the money? Again, a year ago, I would’ve answered differently than I do today, because then money seemed like a bonus. THEM: “Hey, man, we want to publish your book, it’s fantastic, we love it. Oh, and I almost forgot, we’re gonna give you some money for it, too. How’s that sound?” ME: “Uh, freaking awesome! I’d just be happy to get published. But money too!?! Pinch me.”
But that was then.
Now, while I don’t write for the money, I’d be lying if I said I don’t have plans for every cent I earn writing. The money isn’t peanuts anymore, either. So, yes, I do write for the money. But not solely for the money.
Do I write for the glory? The renown? Ahahaha. Money and glory? You’ve got to be fucking kidding me, right? I write horror novels, fantasy novels. I write books for teens.
Example: I went to a movie premiere in Little Rock the other night and schmoozed with the editors from Oxford American, a magazine published here in Arkansas. When I told them I was a novelist, they were very interested in me. When I revealed I was a horror/fantasy author, noses suddenly became elevated. The managing editor said, “Oh.” Sniff. “We don’t cover that sort of… literature.” I had been drinking so I laughed it off, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt. (Turns out, the editor, Marc Smirnoff, was soon to be removed from his position due to some inappropriate harassment of the sexual stripe. Here’s the NYT article.)
So, no, I don’t write for the glory.
However, it is wonderful having novels on the way to publication from great houses and knowing that when they do come out, people will read them and know my name. The fame a writer has is infinitesimal compared even to some C or D list actor, but still, knowing that people are aware of you and your work is a great – and sometimes terrifying – feeling.
But I am no Ozymandias.
When I hear people saying, “I write because I can’t NOT write,” I want to smack them about the head and shoulders and edit their double negatives. Placing the desire and vocation of writing on the level of, say, breathing, is the same sort of reasoning twelve year old girls use to justify getting the newest skirt – they just HAD to.
I’ve heard writers speak of TRUTH – that it’s at the tip of their pen and all of literature is an attempt to achieve it. I’ve read that some authors feel that we’re all born flawed, and wounded, and the act of all creation is a way to heal that wound. Certain misogynists feel that all artistic pursuit is an attempt by men to become a gestative, creative force – all art is due to womb envy – which leaves me wondering, then, why do women write?
No, none of this applies to me. Or maybe all of it. Shit I don’t know. But I keep going back to one thing.
It’s 1979 and we’re somewhere outside Kankakee, Illinois, barreling through the night in my father’s light blue ’73 Impala. My mom slumps against the passenger window, head against a pillow, bare feet on the dash. My sister has passed into slumber on her side of the car, sprawled out on the big bench seat, no seatbelt in sight.
I can’t sleep. I’ve always been a good sleeper, going down easy if I had half a chance, but I’m too excited and we’ll be in Ludington, Michigan, in the morning and that’s my most favorite place in the world, on the beach, the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, sliding down the dunes, roasting hot-dogs over driftwood fires, having ice cream at the nearby A&W Root Beer stand.
But it’s after midnight now and I can’t sleep.
Dad fiddles with the dial, moving the red frequency indicator back and forth across the face of the radio, changing the shape of the soft static coming from the speakers and making my mom grunt and twist her body a little. He turns it off and drums his fingers on the steering wheel.
In the backseat, I scoot up and hang my arms over into the front seat, resting my chin on the upholstery.
Dad, in a kind of whispery voice, says, “Hey, tiger, you wanna hear a story?”
Mom shushes us but then says, “Just keep your voices down, okay? It’s late.”
Dad says, “You ever heard of the Greeks?”
“Yeah, we saw that movie.”
“That’s right.” He rubs his chin and says, “This story was close to the same time in history, but it’s about a war. The Trojan war. All fought because of a girl.”
He stares out the windshield for a bit, headlights passing us like ghosts while bugs make bright streamers in the air before ending as soft splats on the window.
“It starts like this, if I can remember it right…’I sing, O Muse, of the wrath of Achilles, Peleus’ son…’”
“What’s a Muse?”
He smiles and even though I can’t see it in the darkness of the car, I know it’s there.
“Well…let me tell you…”
I sit, chin on upholstery, hands empty and swinging loose, hanging on his every word as he retells The Illiad, after midnight, going eighty miles an hour, somewhere in Illinois, 1979.
This I will never forget. This I will never forget.
There are moments that shape the course of our lives. Some bad, some good. Sometimes they’re such small, passing moments, you never realize how important they are to you without the space of forty years in which to view them.
But I know why I write.
I write in hopes of giving to others what my father gave to me. The intense joy of story, well-told. An adventure. An escape. And to add my voice to the chorus of innumerable storytellers since mankind sat huddled around campfires.
We are what we do. Sometimes, we can change the world – or at least another person – by what we say.