Often as a writer, I find myself struggling to answer questions that on the surface likely seem very simple: “What do you write?” proves difficult to explain depending on the day I’m asked, and “That must be fun, huh?” nearly sends me into a lengthy diatribe on the cruel realities of the current publishing climate, which almost no one genuinely cares to hear. The most challenging of all to resolve or describe, though—at least in recent weeks—has been the most basic and essential of them all: “What makes you want to write?”
A writer must write for the writing itself—that much seems plainly certain (Channeling Dr. Suess, anyone?). I always try to think of Vincent Van Gogh, who produced masterpiece after masterpiece without ever selling a single painting while he was alive. He loved the act of creation that much. Would that I could trust in my work enough to create page after page, unchecked, unencumbered by promotion timelines and web presence—to know that the writing would speak all I wanted to say into eternity, long after my death and without my constant self-promotion. Would that I could.
But I can’t. Because I don’t live in the late 1800s; it is early in 2014 and I’m launching a book this year—The Burden of Light: Poems on Illness and Loss. There is work to be done, and only a tiny portion of it involves the actual creation of my art. My evenings, which begin around 7 pm or son when I finish my day job and dinner and dog park, are filled with the stuff of marketing and budgeting and planning and promoting—the tasks one might associate with a publicist rather than a creative writer.
Mind you, I suffer from extreme anxiety and get nervous even calling to order a pizza; contacting a stranger on the telephone to set up a poetry reading or attempt to get my book into a local bookstore is downright torture for a person like me. Not every moment of every day is spent this way, but when an author is in book-launch-mode, there are a slew of less-than-desirable tasks that must be accomplished. When the days finish with fewer triumphs to temper the strains, when the pursuit of a passion kills the very passion itself, how can an artist justify carrying on?
As a pursuit that will hopefully span the length of my lifetime, it comes down to more than just needing to really want to write; at the end of the day, I believe that writing is a compulsion. I keep coming back for more—just like so many who came before me, just like the compatriots who so bravely walk alongside me in this harsh publishing industry, and those who will follow in our footsteps—because I feel compelled to put my thoughts on paper. I can imagine no other existence, even if the writing life is strange and terrible and dark and joyless sometimes. Does this qualify as insanity, as masochism, or simple devotion?
Only time will be able to tell what lies at the core of my compulsion to create literature, and why I could never be satisfied living a more ordinary life. Even if I can’t explain it to myself, I can’t seem to stop myself from going back for more of this writing business. If a writer is defined as such by committing the act of writing itself, then I’ll continue to prove myself thus, day in and day out, be they miserable or happy, plentiful or otherwise. On the bright side, at least my life is unlikely to be boring, right?