The Compulsion to Write (pt. 1)

Illustration by Anthony Russo

I was eight years old and urinating in the bathroom of my parents’ Central Avenue house when the precise words manifesting a desire to fill my life with writing first came into my conscious mind. Why this thought occurred to me at so late a date, I am unable to say.

Already by then I had been for some time writing stories, songs, and poems. I’m unable to confirm this speculation, but I believe that I came into the world wired only to write. It may be that I have in modest measures some other talents, but writing is the only activity in this world at which I feel entirely at home, and in which I think I have some reasonable claim to be competent. At no time in my life, so far as I am aware of it, have I felt otherwise. From this I conclude that writing is a compulsion, if not a chronic affliction of some sort. If I am away from the act of writing for a time, my mental disposition suffers. My need to scribble is analogous to the need for food and water. Such is the hopelessness of my case.

It may be that I am fortunate in having always known what I should undertake as my life’s work. However, there is a chasm between the “decision” to write and the resolution of a question which necessarily follows: What will I write about? For many years I had no answer. Writing is singular in its demand for an accounting. One may paint a picture for no particular reason, and one may pursue plumbing merely for the cash. A writer however is someone who must tell a story “about” something, often something of significance or social interest. It is very difficult to write about nothing, and although it is possible to write only about writing, this quickly becomes a matter of tedium which no reader ought to be expected to tolerate. Hence the common tendency of writers to make sonorous claims concerning their motives and objectives, when really at bottom all writers are scratching an itch.

While a teenager, I resolved myself to the prospect of impoverishment. The writers whom I admired lived difficult and miserable lives, often short ones, and while they lived produced brilliant books which few either understood or appreciated. (A good example is George Orwell.) It seemed to me arrogant to expect that I could do any better, or even as well. When the time came to choose a concentration of study, I chose English Literature, and I turned my back against any prospects of material comfort. Nor did I have any romantic notions about this decision, poverty — insofar as my then-naïve self understood it — being to me appalling. My family had known quite modest material conditions, the Indian Reservation and menial labour, etc. very much in the background. What could I do? I was wholly of the conviction that I must put myself in the company of writers, orators, and statesmen, and wholly also of the Socratic principle that the unexamined life in not livable for a human being, but rather only for a beast. There is, in other words, more than one kind of impoverishment.

In answer to the question, What will I write about?, I came upon the answer Satire. This is because, as is common among young teenagers, I had arrived at the crude judgement that the world was unjust and that the principal reasons were the stupidity and wickedness of human beings. I read with great satisfaction, one could even say self-satisfaction, Jonathan Swift (Europeans are “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth”) and Catcher In The Rye. I managed a deal whereby I worked for the Indian Friendship Centre in exchange for unrestricted use of the photocopier, and I thereby produced and sold (to good profit, I should note) a satirical magazine which excoriated my teachers and fellow students. I confirmed what I already knew from my reading of Swift, that “Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own, which is the chief reason so few are offended by it.” My best sales were to those I thought I had undone, but who in fact were merely flattered to discover themselves in print.

As I approached the end of my teens it occurred to me I’d become a bully. In my desire to strike out against human folly I had committed the unforgivable error of paying no heed to my own shortcomings. In short, I was arrogant. I also came to the conclusion, which I maintain today, that satire is an ineffective genre, partly for the reason provided by Swift and partly for the reason I have just given, that it too easily flatters the Satirist. I decided to take another direction. I wrote poems and plays and short stories, and then in the early 1990s fell upon the personal essay. There I found my voice. In the personal essay I discovered the flexibility I had desired but not found elsewhere. I wrote, as I always had, from experience — but with a degree of detachment. I found with the personal essay I could be, at one and the same time, both entirely committed to a principle or argument, and at enough distance to acknowledge the other side. This in my view made it possible for me, and for the first time, to write with very satisfying nuance, even irony, yet without a trace of malice. I consider this phase to be the beginning proper of my career.

Part Two