The following is dedicated to all those condemned to write by circumstance or compulsion:
I write because painting involves clean-up.
I write because sculptors always have dirty hands and stand-up comics rarely get to bed before 3 a.m.
I write because actors have to obey rageaholic, ego-besotted directors and directors have to deal with vain, nitwit actors.
I write because dance requires musculature that my Creator withheld from me.
I write because learning music means merciless practicing of scales or chords and no one has ever suggested that sitting down and writing prepositions on a piece of paper for four hours a day makes you a better writer.
I write because language finds a warm, favorable incubation chamber in my brain. My favorite movie metaphor for what it’s like to be a writer is John Hurt in the movie “Alien.” You’ll remember that he plays a scientist whose curiosity gets him in trouble when some enormous, gelatinous space organism attaches itself to his face. After a few hours, the thing dies and falls off and Hurt thinks he’s fine until that famous lunch with his crew mates when the movie’s namesake explodes out of his stomach and disappears into the bowels of the ship. Artists are merely spawning beds in which experience comes in, and something ugly or powerful or beautiful or utterly mundane bursts out and escapes into the world. It’s a process that’s painful, involuntary and often unexpected, and, as in “Alien,” it usually causes anyone in the immediate vicinity to lose their appetites.
I grew up a collector – baseball cards, comic books, political buttons, among other things – which is a surprisingly common habit of writers. They tend to view language in the same way, words, phrases, ideas to gather and put away in a mental shoe box.
Many years ago, I was jilted by a girl with emerald eyes and hair the color of a Hawaiian cocktail. One day, when I declared my monstrous feelings for her, she fixed me with those beautiful green eyes, brimming with tears, and said, “I’m sorry. I guess I’m just unboyfriendable.”
My immediate reaction wasn’t rage, or horror, or mortification. It was, “Wow, that’s a cool word.” All I remember about her now is that word. Unboyfriendable. I don’t even remember the green eyes or the red hair, though I can say with confidence that she did have eyes, and hair.
And that’s another reason I write. Because writing is a license to lie. And, like almost everyone else on this side of the intelligence scale from Forrest Gump, I take deep and lasting pleasure from lying. Like the urban legend that Eskimos have a hundred names for snow, writers have almost as many words for a lie – fable, myth, novel, legend, allegory, story, etc. The word “memoir,” little known fact, is French for “lying to yourself.”
I also write because I’m lazy. I was still a child, I think, when I learned that the great Mark Twain wrote many of his best works flat on his back in bed. That’s my kind of artist right there. Let’s see Yo Yo Ma or Georgia O’Keeffe or Baryshnikov do that. And yet, I can even trump the mighty Twain on that score. He had to exert himself in the task of writing long hand on paper. Me, I can do my work perfectly well on a laptop with nothing but a pulse of my fingers, the absolute minimum physical exertion the human body is capable of, except maybe for blinking your eyes, and I’m not even willing to concede that point without some scientific backing.
What else would Walt Whitman have become if he were not a writer? He would have never painted a picture of a spear of summer grass, or composed a sonata to it. He would have never gotten around to it. If he were not imbued with the mantle of the great poet, Whitman would have been seen as a worthless reprobate for laying around in the grass, particularly in the 19th century when hard, back-breaking manual labor was the price you paid for staying out of the grave for another day, when being lazy took real guts.
Writing, in fact, endows a certain kind of respectability to people who may have none otherwise. It often give royal robes to scoundrels. It makes some shut-in necrophiliac creep into Edgar Allan Poe. It makes some foul-mouthed drunk into Charles Bukowski. I’m no different than the next guy, deathly afraid of being seen as the next guy, some anonymous drone only to remembered by my children and my creditors. I could use some of that magic for myself.
Writers get the perfect kind of fame – adored by the hordes yet left alone by the paparazzi.
Writing is what you do when you’ve exhausted every other avenue to coolness. As a younger person, I flirted with guitars and motorcycles. Neither flirted back.
So, writing and I, we’re stuck with each other, like two elderly spinster sisters who can no longer distinguish annoyance from love.
And that’s why I write – because I’ve outlasted all those reasons not to.
To be a writer – and this applies to painters, sculptors and other visual artists as well – is to engage in the lonely arts. Those of us who write are constantly wrestling with envy of those engaged in the collaborative arts, because directing a movie, playing in a band, acting in a play, interacting with other artists and audiences – these things are obviously a blast, even a life-altering experience, for those involved in them.
A writer, by contrast, starts as an outsider, and largely stays on the outside. I began writing in high school, mainly because I was socially invisible. I could almost feel people walking through me in the crowded hallways, as if I were made of fog.
And so I was left with writing, exiled in my bedroom, filling spiral-bound notebooks with great gaseous arias of self-pity that I fantasized would be read over the loudspeaker by the principal the day after I was killed while trying to deflect an asteroid that otherwise would have obliterated the school in the middle of third period.
Writing is, in fact, as close to pure thought in art as you can attain. If you screw up, you can’t blame the piano, or the camera, or the oil paint, or any other tool of your craft that you depend on. You can try. You can say, “Well, you know that adjective really let me down. It’s just so hard to create with inferior materials. Stephen King can go out and buy the best verbs money can buy, but I’m on a budget. My wife got me a really nice set of punctuation marks for my birthday, but already a couple of commas are beginning to wear out and my semi-colon is in the shop.”
You can try that. But no one over the age of three is going to let you get away with it. Writing is the artform with no excuses.
And that’s another reason that I began to write. Because you didn’t have to ask your parents for any capital layout. The materials threshold is appealingly low, and inspiration for a writer is as close to free as you can expect, even in the pre-Internet age, thanks to the wonderful socialist innovation known as the public library. And if you’re too lazy to get your hands on a pencil, notebook and library card, then maybe you should starve.
Which brings me to that other reason that I write.
I write because apparently I’m allergic to money, and there is no safer bet to avoid the pressures and burdens of being ridiculously wealthy than to aspire to be a writer. Yes, there are a few of us who have, for whatever reason, tragically slipped into obscene riches. But when you write about wizards and vampires, you should know the risks.
All artists tell themselves and each other that art is essential. But deep down we know that’s not true. What’s essential is water, food, shelter, clothing and, for most Americans apparently, ammo. But that’s just for animal survival. To live as humans, art is very much essential. It becomes so the instant you realize that one day you’re going to die. Living with mortality is impossible unless you’re a creative being, or at least receptive to the creativity of others.
For years, I lashed myself for indulging in writing. “You want to make a real difference in the world?,” the Inner Critic said, “Go be a farmer. Feed people. Build them houses. Your pretty words can’t fill bellies. Your songs, your plays, your paintings, a man will burn them all to keep his children warm.”
That is, of course, a cynical and corrosive worldview. That puts us on an equal plane with cows and birds and pigs and insects. All false modesty aside, the human animal is a first among equals. If we make it our highest calling just to keep our bellies full, we are abdicating our potential as the most advanced lifeform in the known universe. And once we are warm, safe and no longer hungry, art is what beckons us to meet a deeper hunger. Art is the greatest adventure.
And by art, I don’t mean pictures on tote bags. I’m talking about the impulse to find out who we are and where we’re going. Religion and spirituality are forms of art and not until we can see that are we ever going to be truly free. The Bible, the Torah, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, these are all works of writing. They are God’s way of making art, if you’re inclined that way. Greek myths are stories, works of art, that dragged us out of antiquity. And the great religions of the world are now the institutions compelling us to live, and occasionally die, for the sake of a metaphor.
Our species is caught between the literal world and the metaphorical world, and the result is an intractable cycle of unimaginable pain and violence and suffering. Art provides a way out of that in-between place. We all have an individual mission on this earth, to become the best human we can be before our time is up. To be better people than our parents were, and compel our children to be better than we were. That can’t be done without art.
If truth is that far land beyond the horizon to which the inner compass of our humanity draws us, then metaphor is the boat will take us there.
And that’s why I write: to earn my place on that boat.