I just started a book my mom got me for Mother’s Day. (The World Split Open: Great Authors on How and Why We Write). And I mean just. But I’m already hooked…
As Robert Stone states, with blazing simplicity: “Storytelling is not a luxury to humanity; it’s almost as necessary as bread. We cannot imagine ourselves without it, because the self is a story.” Amen.
It’s true — the universe would survive without decent writing, much as it did for a trillion or so years before writing was born. And it’s true that the vast majority of people on earth will continue to live full, eventful lives without the benefit of Jane Austen or W. S. Merwin. But by this reasoning, you could also argue that almost nothing matters. (Or, rather, you could argue that if you knew how to write well.) People can live without basketball, domestic pets and real butter, too. If the question is simply one of literal survival in its ultimate sense, eating twigs in the wilderness or Pringles in front of the Xbox, we can survive with almost nothing, we’ve demonstrated that. For those who want to live in a deeper, funnier, wilder, more troubled, more colorful, more interesting way, a way in which not only writing matters but also beauty, memory, politics, family, and everything else, put on your reading glasses and turn the page. Your people have something to tell you…
– Jon Raymond
So ends the best introduction in a book I’ve ever read. It left me both sure this writing thing is where my heart lies and convinced that I should stop trying to write at all, because I will never reach the level of artistry Jon Raymond clearly possesses. He did his job perfectly: made me eager to read the book immediately, wishing I had the whole day to dig in, while also arguing a larger point with dexterity. With technical accuracy, humor and logic. I wish I could quote the entire piece. But that would be illegal.
How can I add to this? Not with any better argument in favor of the written word. But perhaps with my own story to back it up. A personal tale to defend the artistic genre that I love. A story to promote the importance of story. That’s all I can offer. And so I do:
In my third year of college I enrolled in Fiction Writing I, along with my good friend Marc (who, because he had a harder time getting a story onto paper than onto film was taking it for the second time). He wasn’t a great writer, but he knew great writing. I was nervous. I had been writing since I could remember. Little poems, songs, stories, a scintillating screenplay for a puppet show when I was in grade school. Then more poems, songs and a Poe-like short story (that in retrospect was reeeeeally similar to Psycho) for my high school Gothic Lit. class. Then tons of essays in college. TONS. All of which were boring to write and probably also to read. About other people’s writing, or historical events and their relevance to the present, or why Nietzsche was wrong.
But I hadn’t written fiction that bore my soul since I was little, when I didn’t care who knew what was in there. I was old enough now to know people might mock. Might not like what they saw. And to worry that my writing might actually be terrible.
And Marc was in my class.
My Marc. My secret future husband. If my first short story was bad, he wouldn’t know what a hidden jewel I was. Wouldn’t see me as I longed to be seen: as, duh, this beautiful, intelligent artiste. Right in front of his eyes all this time. The pressure was on.
So I went home and did my thing. Saw a photograph in my American History textbook that sparked my imagination and began. Hunkered down in my dorm room with pen and paper (yes, actual pen and paper, back in the olden days of 1995 when computers lived in the computer lab). I got in the zone. Threw in some historical details. Scratched out entire paragraphs. Wrestled with the words until I was happy with my story, or out of time.
Our class workshopped everyone’s stories, a few each class period, so we had to read them in advance in order to give each person feedback. My day had come, and I was terrified. I got up, dressed, walked down to the dorm cafeteria. Knowing I would likely see Marc – his curly ponytail bopping around the cereal dispensers, the sight of which always made my stomach turn with excitement/anxiety. And there it was. I watched where he sat. Got my daily dose of LIFE with milk and headed to the booth, heart pounding. And when I turned the corner to sit, and he saw me, he stopped talking to his friend and looked at me. For a long time. Longer than necessary to acknowledge my presence. Longer than anyone looks at anyone unless they are seeing them differently than usual. Maybe for the first time. I just about peed my pants. I didn’t know what he was going to say – maybe he didn’t know how to tell me it was awful. But then he smiled and I burst inside. I stayed cool, don’t get me wrong. I didn’t want him knowing how desperately I wanted him to love my story. But he did. And it was the beginning. I had been right in front of him all this time, but now, to him, I was a writer.
And that, my friends, is just one of the love stories I can tell you about my relationship with the written word. It’s in my bones and has worked its way out my whole life long. I may not be as good as Jon Raymond, but I will defend this art form until I physically cannot. By writing. Plain and simple. It matters in the world.
Now to read the rest of that book…