Sunday, August 15, 2021

What I Love

I read a very bleak essay this week by a writer who is about to publish a book. That's the kind of occasion most writers look forward to, but the thrust of the essay was that, since the author's last book publication hadn't made them happy, there was no good reason to think this new book could do the job, either. Especially since, as the essay concluded, people don't change—even if they'd like to.

It's hard not to feel a little annoyed at the start of an essay like this. (“What the hell, don't you know how lucky you are?”) But by the end, well, I wasn't won over, exactly, but I did feel more of a kinship. I'm no alien to what the essay described. I've chased my share of ephemeral pleasures, hoping to find some way to stretch them into a permanent state of contentment. I think it takes a deeply honest person, with an equally deep knowledge of self, to acknowledge their conflicted feelings around achieving a significant goal. It's very human to hope some thing will satisfy your restless heart, while knowing full well that it won't.

Still, when I finished reading the essay I couldn't help but ask myself, what's the point? What is the point of making time every day to go write? And what's been the point of making writing a central part of my life for the last twenty years? If publishing stories and books can't make a person happy, then why not just stop to do something that can? Or at least to do something more profitable.

Here's where I could cite the Bhagavad Gita or Stephen Pressfield or the Stoics. I could talk, in a general way, about how we can't control the result of our labor, we can only control the labor itself. I could point out that since I cannot count on success I should learn to enjoy the work.

Philosophically that's all wise and good, but today I'm just not in the mood! Seneca must step aside for the moment. Instead of these broad philosophical strokes, I want to be more specific. Here's what I love about writing that makes it feel like an end in itself.

I'm more at home on the page than in person.

Sometimes, when I'm talking to someone, it feels like I'm watching myself from a great distance and observing the scene. When this starts to happen what I'm usually thinking is, Dear god, why don't you shut up? The "me" doing the talking feels like somebody else—like a mask or a puppet I've stitched together over the years, one which is capable enough to navigate through most of my day.

But, at some level, I don't really believe that he's me. He's just some meat suit I wear to move around in the world, the fleshy avatar that makes it possible for me to eat tomato sandwiches and buy new books and listen to music. But the real me, the purest version of me, is the one who shows up when I write. When I sit down to write after a day in the world, I feel like a caught minnow being dropped back in a pond. I'm back in the place I was made for.

I love the practice of writing.

I take real pleasure in making a bad sentence better. The context barely matters—it could be from a short story, or it could be from a product report for work. It's a satisfaction that emerges from practice, I think, a kind of positive feedback loop that develops in the brain as you hone a particular skill.

I suspect this feedback loop could be created out of almost any regular practice. Maybe the pleasure I get from writing is the same someone else takes from cooking, or landscaping, or carving jolly little sailboats from driftwood. Whatever the case, it seems like a miracle that this function exists in the brain at all, that instead of boredom it's possible to continually uncover new levels of meaning just by the practice of a thing that you love. For me, that just happens to be writing.

Writing surprises me on the page.

No matter how much you outline a story, you can never plan for everything that will happen. (The only way to do that is to actually write the damn thing.) Every line of dialogue, every moment of observation, every transition into new a scene is the opportunity for something to surprise you. That doesn't mean it will always happen. But, more often than you might think, you reach for a detail and what comes to mind catches you completely off guard.

How does this work? How can you surprise yourself? I don't know the full answer, but I suspect it works like a dream.

What I mean is this. A few years ago, I had a vivid dream in which I was flying over the rooftops. When it was time to land, I came down on a roof next to some air ducts. I touched one of the ducts to steady myself, and in that moment was startled to find it was warm and silently vibrating.

Where did these details come from? They didn't come from me, by which I mean my conscious brain. I wasn't trying to will a scene into existence; I didn't pause to ask myself, “What should an air duct feel like if it's actively venting out heat?” But those details were there all the same. They had to have come from somewhere.

What happens, I think, is that the unconscious mind serves up the details when called for. If the conscious mind is thinking too hard—trying to force imagery, a scene, some dialogue—the unconscious can't do it's job. But when these parts of the brain can cooperate, we can surprise ourselves because we've opened a channel. Some other part of the brain joins the conversation, with its own startling ideas and logic. To the extent that our own human consciousness can actually be expanded, writing seems to be one way to do it.

Writing surprises me in real life.

When I was in seventh grade, writing stories in a spiral bound notebook, I couldn't have imagined how much of my life would be shaped by that one simple act, repeated over and over. But somehow, almost by magic, placing one word after another turned into a path that's taken me some surprising places.

I've interviewed my literary heroes, had drinks with a MacArthur fellow, read on stage with nationally famous writers, and met some of my best friends because of writing. I've gotten emails from strangers who liked something I wrote, and eye rolls from friends who did not. I've learned how to get back up after rejection and failure, how to accept criticism, and how to hang on to the joy of something I love no matter how it might be received.

What an embarrassment of riches that is. What unexpected surprises. None of these things were why I started to write—in seventh grade, none of them were even on my radar as something to hope for. Nevertheless, these things have all happened as a byproduct of that one simple act, repeated over and over.

Writing is fun.

This gets lost sometimes in the cycle of writing, revision, and rejection, but the truth is that writing is fun. It's real fuckin fun, and that's the main reason I continue to do it. Like most writers, I write to make myself laugh or to see how I think, or just to get something out of my head. I write because I enjoy it, and it's a joy and a privilege that I get to continue.

But it's also fun because people do change. I am not who I used to be—nobody is. That's easy to lose track of sometimes, but writing gives you a way to crystallize a piece of yourself, a little relic of the person you are in that moment, and the way that that person thinks. Sometimes it's a little embarrassing (“I wrote what??”), but sometimes you can also discover some part of yourself you'd like to get back, like an old friendship it's time to rekindle.

Writing creates a record of these selves and how they all interact, and the ways in which they have grown. As a writer, the path ahead may not always be clear, but you can see all the way back to the spot where the adventure began.

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...