Note: This is in response to Wendig's Flash Fiction Challenge from last Friday. This week's challenge has nothing to do with fiction; instead, he's challenged folks to write about why they write. That felt more bloggish than storyish, which is why I'm putting this in the "journal" column. Now, on with business:
"Why do you write?"
I'm an oblique fellow. I like to sidle up to things rather than address them head-on, but this was a direct question, so I'm going to give you an uncharacteristically direct answer: The only thing that I consider meaningful is doing things to make other people's live better and this is the one creative tool I have in the toolbox which gives me any hope of doing so.
I've been working for American corporations for over thirty years now and I have long since made peace with the fact that I'm not going to find meaning or purpose in my work. I get to help people out, and that's the part of the gig I enjoy; the rest is bullshit. My job is mechanically important to the business, but if my position disappeared from all companies tomorrow, the world would be no poorer for it. I don't hate my job, but it is a job and it provides me a decent living and some, but not nearly enough, time away from work to do the things that are important to me.
I'm in awe of people who can make things. I've tried my hand at more creative pursuits that I can describe and stick to the thousand word limit for this challenge. I've tried my hand at both piano and guitar. I've done a little painting. I have some marvelous old Soviet-era film cameras which I'll dust off and lug out into the field from time to time I am a dilettante in both the worst and the best senses of the word. I've pursued these things right up to the point where they became difficult, up until the point I noticed that people who were not jut better than me, but better than I would ever be, were playing in cover bands on Wednesday nights at tiny bars.
It's different with writing. I can read writers who are so much better than me that I cant even really judge how much better they are, and instead of discouraging me, they inspire me. Reading enriches my life* and I can't talk about writing without talking about reading any more than you can exhale without inhaling first. Books, like any good art, contain a hint of magic in that they can change your, can literally alter your perceptions, without you being quite aware of how they managed the trick.
Have you ever read John Steinbeck's East of Eden? If not, you probably ought to do something about that. The first time I read it, I didn't sleep for two days after finishing it because it messed me up so badly. Steinbeck destroyed every excuse I'd every used for being less that decent to other people, and that was more self-awareness than I was prepared to deal with at the time. Somehow, Steinbeck managed to smack me like that and still write an entertaining story, which seems like one hell of a stunt.
Once you've read it, the next thing you need to do is pick up Journal of a Novel. There were, of course, no blogs or laptops or anything like that in Steinbeck's day. Instead, he wrote his novels in longhand on the front side of large sheets of loose paper. On the backs of those sheets, he kept a journal, and the journal is almost as amazing as the novel itself. The journal was his warm-up for the day's writing. He'd write about personal things, about the weather, or the his family, or somesuch. He'd also write about what he was planning for the novel and that's where it gets really interesting. He'd write about what he was trying to accomplish during the day's writing, and how he would accomplish it from a technical standpoint ('This next section is extremely action-packed, so I need to remember to use short sentences, just subject-verb, to accentuate this) and I remain impressed by how aware of his craft his was. His books read as though they "just come naturally," but the truth is that he knew exactly what he was doing and how to accomplish it.
On a broader not, he saw East of Eden as his legacy. It was the sum total of everything he knew, passed down in the form of fiction, to help his children deal with the obstacles life would throw at them. It was his road map for future generations, written in hope that they wouldn't make the same mistakes he had.
If you want to understand why I write, you have to understand how incredibly powerful Steinbeck's goals for East of Eden were. I'm under no illusion that I'm "destined" to write a novel as great as even his lesser works. I'm going to work as hard as I can, as well as I can, and improve as much as I can, and I hope that something I write will help someone or someones get through something they might not have navigated successfully otherwise. I want to do this and, at the same time, write entertaining and maybe even fun stories.
This is why it's important to me. This is why it has meaning. This is why I keep practicing, even when it gets difficult. This is why I write. Thanks for asking the question, by the way. It's not a bad thing to have to remind yourself why you're doing it from time to time.
P.S. I also aspire to write something as goddamn beautiful as this: Oliver Sacks: My Periodic Table. The world is going to be measurably less awesome without Sacks in it. He's a brilliant scientist who also has the ability to write in a way that somehow conveys the awe-inspiring contents of his mind in a deeply touching fashion. Oh, and he was really, really hot too.
* Fun fact: I don't really dream when I'm not reading. When I am reading regularly, I dream vividly every night. I'm unsure as to why, but it's a remarkably consistent.