Why do we write? There is nothing logical about wanting to be a writer. The lives of artists can be awful, despairing, regret-filled exercises in futility. Writers and artists can be some of the most wretched people you could ever imagine. They suffer, often needlessly, and are no more noble or wise than anyone else. These are desperate people, junkies really, jonesing for a hit of truth.
Writing is not for everyone. Years ago, I taught a class at UCLA, a summer class, to a roomful of kids who were heading into their first year of college, and it turned out I was teaching their bullshit elective. I came in with guns blazing, then . . . discovered they didn’t love writing as much as I did. Hell, they couldn’t have cared less. I wanted to hate them, these beautiful children, but they were smarter than me. In fact, they taught me how dangerous it is to care.
They seemed so apathetic, like they had spent the past eighteen years staring at a glass-boxed babysitter. Except one kid. His name was Mike. Mike was from Jersey. He was a trouble-maker, and doubtless came from trouble. The second day, he showed me his citation for urinating in public. This, in and of itself is not necessarily the sign of an artist, but it got my attention. The fact that he showed it to me . . . damn, he was telling me something. He was pissed off (no pun intended), and when he wrote, he wrote with madness and joy. The world came alive to him when he wrote. It was palpable. He cared about the words. They had value to him. He wanted to smash down walls, and break through to something that felt real. His writing was dangerous. It’s dangerous to care.
You never know who the writers are. Some writers are dogged and become writers by sheer will, and some of us got roped into it as kids without having any say in the matter. I’m a lifer. My failures exceed my successes, if I can call anything I’ve done a success. Perhaps that’s up to someone else, or maybe there’s no such thing. I tend to believe the latter. In my heart of hearts, we’re all already free and there’s nothing to prove.
Vonnegut said, “We’re just here to fart around, and don’t let anyone tell you different.”
I became a writer because I wanted to change the world, and yet I know, so deep down in my heart that it is impossible. It can never be done. And that is why I write.
I think about that kid sometimes. Mike. He asked for my email, but I never heard from him. I wonder if he’s a writer. I wonder if he got scared or sidetracked, or got into trouble that he couldn’t get out of. Maybe he found a real job and rationalized why this writing racket was just another one of his bad ideas. Did someone hurt him, or tell him that his writing was wrong? I wonder if he got some teacher who tried to tame him and drove him sane. I think about Mike, and all the Mikes out there who have something to give and have been silenced, or have become silent.
It embarrasses me sometimes how much I care about writers, how it is sometimes the only thing that I care about. My heart aches for the Mikes, because I know that when I write, it is because I want to belong somewhere. I write because it is my job to hold up my end of the bargain. I do it so that when I meet another writer, I don’t have to feel like I’m cheating on them. Because that’s how I feel when I don’t write. Like a man who is cheating on his wife. Writing has given me a life beyond my wildest dreams. And tomorrow I get to do it again.
Why we write is more important than what we write. We were born to express ourselves. The desire to write is connected to the desire to evolve, to resolve something we seek to understand. If you are writing to please someone other than yourself, you are writing for the wrong reason. If we are not delighting and surprising ourselves first, then it is unlikely our work will do that for others. Surrender to the truth that we have no control, that the thrill of creation must be its own reward. If we don’t, we will forever be taking the temperature of our work and find ourselves lost in that no man’s land of ego and mediocrity where what others think matters more than the thrilling and courageous story that lies within.