Few things are better than writing. Writing is sitting with coffee and hatching plans.
Many things are worse than not writing. But not writing is still pretty bad. It’s a dark and reverse alchemy. It turns everything flat, plodding, resigned, airless. A light shove short of hopeless.
If we’re going to count the reasons then maybe it’s three reasons I write. Because it’s increasingly clear I’ll never win an Olympic medal. And because Khubchand’s balls. (Arundhati Roy’s Khubchand was a very old dog. He still had two balls.)
I don’t play competitive chess. Modern competitive chess, they say, is a memorization contest. Computers and rote learning mean the game nowadays is mostly scripted and executed according to recipe. Writing is the opposite. It has no parameters. It has no solution. It is thought made beautiful on a plate.
“10/31/10. Peter tricks-or-treats as a policeman. We go to five houses total. But he’s very proud of his haul. Afterwards at home, he takes inventory. With one exception—an Almond Joy—the candy is exactly the same candy we bought at Wal-Mart to give out to other kids. So we already have it. And he knows this. But he acts like it’s the most exotic/enticing collection of candy he’s ever seen. He is downright delighted. After dinner, he eats the Almond Joy and Cathy and I watch.
George: How is it?
Peter: It’s almonds, chocolate, coconut.
George: How do you like it?
George: How good?
Peter: As good as colored M&Ms.
Cathy: I thought Skittles were your favorite.
Peter: Almond Joy’s as good as Skittles.
George: Is there anything you like more than Almond Joy and Skittles?
George: [I wait for him to finish, but he doesn’t. So I repeat the question.] Is there anything you like more than Almond Joy and Skittles?
Cathy: I think he’s saying he likes Daddy more.
Peter: Daddy. [Walks over. Gives me a hug.]”
In October 2010 my son was four years old. The above is what I wrote that Halloween to remember the moment. Without writing I wouldn’t have it.
Let other people in the world do worthwhile things, things of consequence, while I’m on Drugstore.com? I don’t think so. The Germans surely have a word not for the campaign undertaken by a person convinced of its significance when a broader sense would make clear its triviality and emptiness, not for the campaigner’s eventual realization that this is true, but for the mordant pathos, the vicarious humiliation, of another observing all this from a remove and realizing the truth before the campaigner does. I do not know this German word. I do not want to know it, for the slightest chance that thinking it will introduce its prospect like a virus into the bony round part at the top of my body.
Writing doesn’t cost much. Running eats the knees and ballet pulps the feet. Sailing is how you farm melanomas. Stone sculpting: nerve damage. Blacksmithing: nerve damage. Lace tatting: not nerve damage; blindness. Writing costs the burning in my head maybe. It requires me to strip off the nice lies I wear the rest of life like a sweater. (When in history has anybody ever been simply fine?) Otherwise writing doesn’t cost much at all. It’s sweet and decent that way.
Writing lends immortality. Don’t misunderstand. Writing doesn’t grant immortality. Millions can speak your name after you’re dead and it does nothing for the corpse. Writing just bestows immortality for a time. It lets you forget, for that blessed while, and rather completely, that one day you will die. It leavens what can feel like—what sometimes must be—the futility and desolation of life as it is lived. Hugh Nissenson’s frontiersman understood the first part:
“Is Love as strong as Death?
I do not know.
Will raise the part of me
Within some reader
In the year—
I do not care.
My life to come
David Mitchell’s Robert Frobisher understood it all:
“How vulgar, this hankering after immortality, how vain, how false. Composers are merely scribblers of cave paintings. One writes music because winter is eternal and because, if one didn’t, the wolves and blizzards would be at one’s throat all the sooner.”
I make up words. Beflouvinite, bicardia, boomingest. People can’t say no, can’t mark them red, can’t imperialize their preferences, can’t indicate with a smug jut of the head their looming friend with the 21-inch biceps named Merriam Webster. Dogstile, douchebag-shuhbag, dreamlet. Editor’s house style? Um, as my now twelve-year-old, echt-middle-school son would put it: Get that outta here. Words are the stuff of thought. Language is the medium of existence in any meaningful sense. And I make up that shit entire. They have to publish them, they’ve published all of them, because they come with other, bigger chunks of more or less normal words they actually do want to publish. Relentfully, reroosted, rodoucheo. Suckers.
Another reason to write: the possibility of cobbling together a story wherein Robert Frobisher runs into the frontiersman at, say, a Pier One Imports. They could teach each other a lot. Assuming they didn’t let their mutual bewilderment get the better of them. In that vein they could teach us a lot.
I love writing because of the physicality of it. Meaning there is no physicality of it.
I never decided the sound of my voice. My large pores did not consult me. But people hold me responsible. They say these are me. These are no more me than the kid tugging on my jacket in Aisle 9 of the Stop n’ Shop because she’s mistaken me for her dad. So much of me is appurtenance. So much of me is happenstance. What I write, on the other hand, is very much me. Not near me. Of me. My writing is more me than my face.