Leading into the 10th Anniversary of Barataria in less than two months, I am re-running pieces from the first year. Some of these pieces, like this one, are more personal and introspective. I hope you enjoy it.
Why do we write? It’s a tough question. People put a lot of effort into blogs, but not too many of them are worth reading. Most of these will eventually cease to be amusing, stop being updated, and gradually dissolve as if there were never more than some kind of atmospheric turbulence. So why are they started in the first place?
The last time I tackled this question, I only had information from the observations I make on websites devoted to publishing books. From the behavior of many of the people there, I could only come to one conclusion: it was all a desperate cry for attention.
As I learn more on this topic, it’s from afar, as if I am Jane Goodall observing the chimps of Gombi or I’m the chimp in the zoo observing the humans who walk by. It’s really all the same in the end. I can only answer the question for myself or through the behavior I observe, hoping I get at least close.
On one of the websites that writers routinely frequent, the topic of By-Lines came up. Specifically, the person who started this thread wanted to know what kind of memories people had about the first time they saw their name on a by-line or otherwise in print. Apparently, it can be quite a thrill, and this writer believes that remembering this thrill is somehow important to being successful as a writer.
I thoughtlessly posted my own take, unaware that it might be considered offensive. My reaction to my work in print remains as it was the first time, which is to turn the page the moment I see that my name is spelled correctly. I don’t care about having my name in print other than how it becomes a brand that gets me more work. What matters most is how my message sinks into someone else’s mind and stirs them to see the world a bit differently, care a little more, or flex a strong arm to help out. The day some of my stuff hits paper is nothing more than exam day, a test of whether I’m any damned good at what I’m trying to do. The results won’t come in for a while, either.
But that’s apparently not how most of these writers felt. The first time they saw their name in print was a joyous, exciting moment. Once confessed to doing a “Snoopy dance”, a terrifically happy visual metaphor. Dozens of other people chimed in, relating at length how exhilarating the feeling was. Clearly, this is indeed important to them. But why?
I don’t mean to be too hard on these people because they seem like they are basically decent. Whenever I make my observations on these things that I don’t really understand all that well, people often think I’m judging them by some moral standard, (a particularly humorous idea since as a Taoist I don’t believe in “morality”). But what this comes down to, as far as I can tell, is that they really want to be known as writers; writing, itself, is a primarily state of being more than doing.
Like all forms of “be”, this philosophy comes perilously close to passive voice. Personally, I consider the passive voice to be bad writing just as I consider a passive life as a story untold. . I’ve never had any interest in “being” a writer, or “being” anything. I leave the “being” to those quiet nights when I need a good sleep.
What fascinates me is that there are many complex theories as to “Why We Write”, all intricate enough to require entire college departments to remain gainfully employed forever. Literary Theory is something that I haven’t been highly subjected to, as I have an Engineering degree from Carnegie-Mellon; my school kept it real. What I’ve seen of it is that as a gregarious kind of primate, all human writing needs to be analyzed from a social perspective. The meaning comes from how the text encapsulates the world it came from.
Now, there’s not a single aspect of contemporary literary theory that can’t be refuted by some part of the Tao Te Ching rather elegantly, but that is my own bias. Let’s leave it to Ian McEwan, who said, “Literary theory has always struck me as a fabulous waste of time.” Sadly, the people I observe from behind the brush are people with English degrees and the like, who had heaping gobs of this stuff thrown at them in college. The state of being that defines writerdom is apparently a distinct social class defined in part by gobbledygook.
What’s funny about it all is that it is obvious that many people aren’t writing for a particularly social reason at all. They simply want to be heard. In a complicated industrial society like ours, where namelessness is something of the norm, that’s entirely understandable. But if it is true that this is a powerful motivation, it means that nearly everything that academics think about writing is quite wrong. The struggle often isn’t social class against social class, but individual against any number of social classes. The academic class is as valid a target as any other.
Why do I write? I’m considered a bit odd because I generally write to convince or inform. I want to hear what other people have to say in return, and I’m not successful until I hear someone like State Sen. John Marty repeat my arguments on the floor of the Senate. I believe there’s too much injustice and pain in the world to do otherwise, and the violence I’ve seen only proves that point. Writing is only one tool in the toolbox, and some people tell me I’ve become decent at the craft. Plus, I enjoy it.
Seeing my name in print? The by-line is just the person who gets the blame for all the mistakes; I won’t know if the piece is successful until something changes. That’s what social context really means, as far as I can tell.