Writing is like passing a kidney stone, friends: bloody, gut-eating, crippling labor. Like a grown man giving birth to a child or an army of ticks digging into your back. It’s sweaty, back-breaking, brutal—the Gulag of professions.
Too much perhaps? I always had a flair for the dramatic. Well for the sake of propriety, I’ll call on the wise words of Alanis Morisette, who often guided me through troubled teenage angst: Writing is like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife.
When I was in high school, I heard many a torturous story about now-famous dead authors who wrote until their hands couldn’t write anymore. If professors are to be trusted, then the tales were true: their wrinkly old hands just shriveled up. Some–like the obsessive and blind John Milton—continued dictating long after losing the capacity to write. I imagined these masters days after they could no longer dot an “I,” soaking in their own debilitating depression—alone, in a room with a single chair and an empty pad of paper resting anxiously on a desk. At some point, they curled up into coffins, but that was before the world knew they existed. By some cruel fancy of fate, the world uncovered their genius as their bodies rotted in the ground, volumes of literary genius suddenly giving light to the human condition.
These are the biggies, of course—Dickinson, Blake, Shelley, Keating, Wilmot. They wrote, and wrote, and wrote. And whether stunted by their condition—as the remarkably mediocre female Emily Dickinson—or by disease—as was the painfully young John Keating—their troubled, brilliant minds did not resonate with humanity until they were novel–and, in most cases, dead.
Not to be cute, but I suffer the same odious condition myself. I am not tried by socioeconomic lack, nor am I much hindered by physical limits. And perhaps that is my greatest undoing: I am, relatively-speaking, average. Every man, woman, and child has a story to tell, but mine sounds quite a bit like his and hers and theirs. It does not rise above human narratives by virtue or vice, and it does not show a refreshingly lovely or eerily seedy side of this world. It is simply my story.
By rights, I should be free to tell that story—and I am. But the great American promise of success set on one’s own passions, skill, and ambition is a bit laughable when you look at a writer’s toolbox. I have my experience and I have the English language. Go, now, the keeper of the dream urges on—go tell your story.
But it never catches, this small fabric in the weave of human narratives. Or at least, it hasn’t yet. And I cannot seem to understand why, except to call on two terrible possibilities. One: my story isn’t all that interesting. Two: I’m not really a very good writer. And if it’s both? About the time that realization hits, I’d be ready for my own solitary confinement—just me, a chair, and a pad of empty paper staring back. Some chocolate wouldn’t hurt.
There is a third possibility, of course, but a hard one to consider in the finite here and now. It is conceivable, by some wild wisdom of the universe, that my work is not ripe for discovery. Some day—as it was with the Dickinsons of the world—lovers of language will trip over a poem here, a story there and take it all in. “Genius,” they will say aghast. “How have we missed this?”
But if that is true, I don’t feel I have the depraved and deprived situation to warrant it. Nothing’s quite wrong enough with my life for that kind of colorful find, decades after I croak in a retirement home. What will they say, after all? “Well, he was a normal guy. Nothing different about him at all, really. I wonder where all this inspiration came from.”
And yet, despite the periodic despair, I plod on with writing. I write about real things and fairytale things; I write poems and essays; I tell my story and I ask people to tell me theirs. Why do I do this? Why don’t I abandon it all and take up accounting?
Aye, there’s the rub. Kidney stone passing or not, writing is not exactly what I choose to do. You see, writing isn’t a career for me; it’s not a plan I conjured or a dream I scripted. It is nothing more or less than the essence of who I am. I suppose it’s most often expressed this way, when you ask someone why they do what they do in life: “Well, I don’t know what else I would do.”
And if Keating and Dickinson and Wilmot and Gray and Twain and Ellison and Haruf plodded on through anonymity, hands cramped, without thought, then perhaps so should I. And stop worrying so damned much about what you think of what I write.