Perhaps it’s not surprising, given the state of literature these days, but I’m often asked why I write, you know, in that sort of, Why bother? What are you, a masochist? sort of way.
Well, the easy answer is that I can’t seem to stop, and speaks of a certain mental compulsion, perhaps neurosis. I’m fine with that. But when I really think about it, my desire to write comes much more from a desire to do something worthwhile, to be engaged in something large and meaningful. (Critics might well say that writing, or in any case my writing, doesn’t fit the bill, and perhaps they’d be correct. The truth is the writer is the last person who can really judge his or her own work, so attached is it to the writer’s psyche and subconscious.)
I remember being about twelve or thirteen, sitting at a study carrel in Beaconsfield High School, next to the metal shelves filled with so many books I couldn’t possibly read even half of them. It was quiet there, as it wasn’t in much of the rest of the school, especially in the lounge across from the offices where students were, shockingly I now feel, permitted to smoke. (You can imagine the state of the carpet, which one hopes was fire retardant!). I was not one of the popular kids and often, mostly due to unfortunate circumstances at home, felt adrift in the social sea. But not there, not in the library. It was there, on that one afternoon when I felt sweep over me a great desire to be a scholar, to be focused on a work large enough, interesting enough, to keep me engaged for years. I imagined sitting amidst dusty tomes in some great library like the British Library, pouring over texts, searching for some tidbit of illuminating knowledge. Perhaps I would be a medievalist, or a theologian. I would write books and publish, I would wear my hair in a soft bun and would live with my dog in a small cottage out on the moors somewhere. I was, even then, something of a romantic. (Later I pondered living in an Airstream trailer on the rodeo circuit, but that obsession didn’t stick, thankfully.)
Well, life didn’t quite work out that way and for a number of mundane reasons, I never went to university, and so my ideas of academia dissolved. But writing was something I could do on my lunch hour or after hours from the various secretarial jobs I held. Maybe I couldn’t get the British Museum, but I could start my own library, in that shelf next to my desk. I could read. Anything I wanted. I could write, and I found writing novels was indeed a work that would keep me engaged for years. Beyond that, if I couldn’t find anyone to talk to, I could talk to the page. So, yes, loneliness played a part as well. By this I don’t mean, necessarily, that I was alone, but I often felt, as in high school, a little apart from others.
So, meaningful work and a sense of being companioned, if you will. This is not, certainly, to say that writing is the only meaningful work. What an absurd statement that would be. But it does make meaning for me. Life is often messy, chaotic, unfathomable, and baffling. But when I’m at the page, something quite magical happens: I feel the world settling into place in a way that makes sense to me. Not all the time, but often enough to keep me going. I feel as though what I’m doing is what I was intended to do. Of course, it is not the only thing I do. I do lots of things, with lots of people in lots of ways, but it all circles around the temenos in which I write.
And this, I feel, is the important thing. To discover what it is you were intended to do and to do that, regardless of worldly success or material reward. One never knows what effect one might have on the world (we only see just a tiny part of the great weaving), but I believe we must have faith that when we are doing that which we were made for, we are fulfilling the Ineffables’ instructions. Grow a carrot. Raise a child. Drive a truck. Heal the sick. Comfort the lonely. Feed the hungry. Write a poem. Bake a pie. Rescue a dog. Whatever it is, do it because it is FOR you, because it is right for you. Not out of a selfish desire to do what pleases you, although my experience is that it will, but because it matters to the world, to the great weaving of inter-connection.
Rev. Leslie Smith was the priest at Trinity Episcopalian Church a few years ago. When he was baptizing babies he used to say, “Welcome! You’re exactly what the world’s been waiting for!” Amen, brother.