Why do writers write? The good ones seem to know

December 06, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

A few days ago, I sat down to read a book with the certain, sure intent of damning it, damning the idea of it, using its weaknesses, and its strengths if I found any, to make several points that torture my entrails:

There are too many books! Too many books are being published this week! Too many this year! Too many publishers - but, worse yet, too few editors editing the books!

Now that I have read that book, strike every word of that paragraph from the record. It's all true, of course, but it doesn't matter.

These excesses are a minor cost to pay for the beauty of a wondrous book.

The book I intended to victimize and now celebrate is "Why I Write," edited by Will Bythe (Little, Brown, 226 pages, $23). Blythe, a New Yorker, was literary editor of Esquire for many years. One day, he began offering a gaggle of writers of fiction and poetry $500 each to write answers to the question "why do you write?" Many rose to the challenge, if not to the bait. This book is the result, a collection of 26 little essays.

Norman Mailer, in an opening, showcase piece called "At the Point of My Pen," starts off insisting, "I may not tell you why I write - it could be too complicated for my mind." And he ends by overriding his reservation, declaring that, "The only time, right or wrong, that I feel a quintessential religious feeling - that the power of the truth is in me - comes on occasions when I write, no, even better the only time I know the truth is at the point of my pen."

These brief essays often amount to writers stripping themselves shivering naked, and answering, with truth and emotion, that very personal - very private - question.

Some of them, of course, preen and prattle. Several dodge, artfully - or anyway entertainingly. But all of them are well-established professional writers, so they write, and they write pretty good. If you like reading, you will like this book. You will also learn something from it.

A major theme, of course, is: "Don't!" Most of these writers are distinguished and have been productive. The list includes Rick Bass, Richard Ford, Mary Gaitskill, Terry McMillan, Robert Stone, others - winners of High Honors and loyal readership. Not one of them suggests the process of writing is anything short of very demanding. Many describe it as excruciating.

Near the beginning of "Why I Write, or Not," Jim Harrison gives a description: "The act of writing is a boy hoeing a field of corn on a hot day, able to see either a woodland or, more often, an immense forest where he'd rather be." And eight pages later he concludes: "Don't do it unless you're willing to give up your entire life."

There's often massive ego involved, of course. In "For the Money," Mark Jacobson plays the sand-lot punk: "I write for the money. Sure, there are other, subsidiary reasons. Sometimes writing gets my rocks off. My spiritual rocks, my data rocks, my attention to craft rocks, my pet rocks."

There is measured, but painful self-study. In "Uncanny the Singing That Comes from Certain Husks," Joy Williams diagnoses the writer's malady: "Of course the writer is not whole, or even particularly well. There's something unwholesome and self-destructive about the entire writing process." But then she redeems the sufferer, spiritually: "Why does the writer write? The writer writes to serve - hopelessly he writes in the hope that he might serve - not himself and not others, but that great cold elemental grace which knows us."

In "I Am a ... Genius!" Thom Jones explores the interminability of the writer's burden: "After getting lost and being found time and again, the writers who don't quit discover the ecstasy within the process of the work itself. They discover the sublime joy of seeing things come together to produce an artistic whole. ... You can be a greaseball off the streets, so long as you are a greaseball who knows how to put things together." And he presents a metaphor that I, who find immortal truths in classic cartoons, was enchanted by: "Someday Wile E. Coyote will prevail. Not because he wants a bird sandwich, but because he has a burning desire."

Throughout, there rages the internal battle between writers' roles of examining themselves in the process of their work and the almost invariable truth that self-examination, on its face, is a boring, indulgent, artless - and usually witless - act.

Pat Conroy takes that on. In "Stories," he declares that, "The writers who scoff at the idea of the primacy of stories either are idiots or cannot write them."

And then he moves the concept forward: "Through words, I learned that life and art can be raised to a fever pitch, to sacramental levels, that ecstasy itself is within easy reach for all of us, but the secret is in knowing it is there and when to reach for it. ... You try to worship God by performing the singularly courageous and impossible favor of knowing yourself."

Appropriately, the book ends with a prodigious act of tale telling. The last piece is a story by Mark Richard, called "Why Is That Man Tied on the Mast?" It is about Mark Richard.

It defies description - beyond suggesting it is about an anonymous "special child" who endures almost unbearable fates and adventures and wants to work in a zoo rather than fulfill his youthful promise as a writer. It doesn't answer the question. It is ,, sublime. It may have more to say about why writers write than all the other answers put together.

Writers write.

Readers read.

But no one can make you read the bad stuff. It's the good stuff that has always enriched human life - that has made lives human.

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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