This is how Carolyn See opens the last chapter of her book, Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers. She then goes on to describe her dismay after the death of her life partner of 27 years, and how it shed an unapologetic light on the act of writing - a light that she felt illuminated the uselessness of writing, or any other activity.
You could say that my own relationship with writing and life got pretty attenuated then. Because what is the point of living--or any of its activities--when the setup is: You're going to die and the people you love will die and it will be worse than you can ever imagine! (I'm not saying this is an original thought, only that when it hits you, it hits with considerable force.) Every activity--every activity--turns out to be just the same: hitting golf balls into little holes are inventing the insulation that goes into airplanes or answering phones at an office. All of it is only killing time until we die.
See then remembers her early days of writing when she didn't yet have the "good sense" to doubt the usefulness of writing, and then comes back around to her thesis:
Literary life is a marriage, not a romance. And, as I said, some of us aren't very good at marriage; the dailiness of it gets us down.
It's a marriage, not a romance: the tension of "being in love" and at the same time, somewhere in there, profoundly not giving a shit--but still taking it on faith that you must be in love. And you're counting on that feeling to last for the rest of your life.
It all starts to sound terribly boring and burdensome, but somehow you know she's going to tie it up with a morsel of hope, and she does:
If you can stand the dailiness of it--the continuing marriage of your inner life to all the confusion of the outside world--you can have some fun!--in the very highest and most profound sense.
I bought this book because of the title. I fooled myself into imagining someone had written a book on the Literary Lifestyle I'm dreaming up in my head. It wasn't. It is a book about writing to publish, and it is a fine book about that topic.
I'm interested in writing as a way of life, the way it was before telephones, cameras, radio, television, and the internet. A method of communication, but also a way to understand oneself and the world. A gathering up of all that we had seen and heard and experienced in order, not just to preserve or tell a story, but to marry our thoughts and feelings to these experiences. A contemplative exercise embarked upon for its own sake, with no thought to the critic or the agent or the publisher.
The rise of blogging revealed a yearning, I think, to bring writing back into life in this way, but it too quickly became a platform to get internet-famous.
I started my first blog circa 2004 on Friendster. Remember Friendster? A few of my friends and family read it, and that was strange and exhilarating. Every comment left me spinning with equal parts fear and a fever to write more. There was no plan then. I didn't fancy myself a writer. It was just that there was this platform where I could say something, so I did.
Then Friendster went to its early social media grave, having arrived before its time. A few months later I started on blogger. This was an entirely different experience. Friendster came with a built-in audience of people who knew me, and before that I wrote only in my own journals. Anyone who might see them would also know me, and probably after I was dead. Here now was a platform that sent my words into the great online ether-space and I had no control over who might read those words. Maybe no one. Maybe a small handful of people. But they would be strangers to me.
Flinging words out into the unknown feels what I imagine floating in an infinite outer-space feels like. Lovely at first, peaceful and vast. Until that moment you realize there is no tether linking you to anything. That's just terrifying. You need to know there's someone on the other end, ready to reel you back in. It was with those first posts that I realized the importance of a reader, even if only an imaginary one. The writer needs the vast aloneness, and the tether at the other end.
This idea of the literary life as a marriage struck me. The marriage, yes, between the outer and inner, but also the marriage between writer and reader. Not even when writing in one's private journal do we forget the reader on the other end. It may be our future self, or our great-great grandchildren, but she/he is always there.
Your word this week, taken from the final chapter of Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers, is:
I've given you an extra day due to the day late on this prompt. I wrote this all yesterday and then deleted it by mistake like a rookie. I had to curl up in the fetal position with some dark chocolate before I could bear the rewriting. Prompt closes Sunday at midnight.
Aaaand, don't forget the Amtrak writing residency book giveaway. One more week to go! See Prompt #367 for details.