I used to be in a writing group with two good friends. One evening, we let another friend — someone who doesn’t write fiction — sit in.
He was impressed by the effort my friends and I put into the stories we wrote. It wasn’t our friends’ intent, but he said something about how he respected us for focusing on a dying art. (Those are my words — not his…he was more eloquent in his phrasing.)
The point he was trying to make was people don’t read as much as they once did…at least the kinds of things some of us in the group wrote. He was trying to convey how much he respected us, but we spun it as a joke, with him proclaiming literature was dead and we were fools for engaging in such a frivolous pursuit.
But driving home that night, I did think:
What if there was no one to read what I write? Would I still do it?
The Same Fate As Our Flesh
Yesterday morning, I read this talk by Mary Ruefle given to the Bennington Writing Seminars Commencement Address. I thought about “The Death of Literature Proclamation” from our friend when I saw this bit from Ruefle’s talk:
It’s pretty metal to keep an ever-decaying book in your backyard as a reminder of your physical and creative mortality! We are, after all, encouraged since childhood to leave our mark upon the world. If not from our parents, by teachers and movies and so many other things we encounter almost daily.
Why do a thing if not for it making us immortal? (Shakespeare or bust!)
The Thrill of the Act
Ruefle, of course, answers this:
Writing can be a very frustrating thing, but there’s a joy and thrill when it all comes together.
There’s a point in editing almost every story for Not About Lumberjacks when I think, “Why do I subject myself to this hell six to eight times a year?”
But when I hear the rough cuts, and then sit and listen with my wife, few things make me happier.
Whether it’s the thrill of the act, the joy in its making, or just filling much of my free time doing something I like doing to keep my mind from fixating on darker realities, writing makes me happy.
So why not do it?!
Writing is Work
I know there are those who, when Ruefle writes, “Writing is not what you do, it’s who you are,” feel those words reverberate to their core. For me, though, writing is what I do…it’s not who I am. (If I could never write again, I’d miss it, but I’d still fill my time with other things I enjoy doing.)
In many ways, writing is like every warehouse and factory job I’ve had: you take a bunch of pieces scattered about and make a thing. Sometimes it’s hubs and pulleys, molds and resins, or building pallets and packing trailers — and other times it’s words.
I like the work. Hell, in November 2009, I wrote about my workaday muse:
(Obviously, I would rather pay my way writing fiction than being a technical writer, but I’m happy to be writing stories at all.)
The Death of Literature
There will be a day when literature is dead, when all our books and flesh are decayed and forgotten. It may take thousands or even millions of years, or it may come sooner than we think. (Remember those darker realities I mentioned above?)
If one writes to become immortal in some sense — to be remembered like Shakespeare — they’ve lost before starting.
I have little to back up this claim, but with so many new things to read and other things to hold our interests, give it a few more generations and even The Bard’s immortality through literature is likely to fade. (And never mind other countries with their own immortal storytellers…it’s kinda presumptuous to say, “Ol’ Will is the icon of icons!”)
Today, We Write!
I still occasionally tease my friend about his “Death of Literature” writing group visit; in part, because the point he actually made was not off. If one seeks a means to support themselves creatively, there are far easier ways to do so than writing fiction.
Maybe Ruefle is right in saying, “[writing] is who you are.” (No one takes it up because it’s easy!)
I have many thoughts about writing (there are 680 other entries here), but only one absolute I’m confident in declaring: writing is a thing I do because the challenge brings me repeated joy.
(And because of that, I will likely write until I can’t anymore…)
* * *
Image: Payton Tuttle.