Barking at Shadows (And Other Things Writers Do)
Is writing an insane way of spending our time?
My mother seems to think it is - even now that she's finally accepted that's what I do. And my dad too was bemused by my choice of career, seeing as, to him, actually reading an entire book is akin to having his fingernails forcibly removed.
Robert Louis Stevenson once said he felt reading was 'mighty bloodless' and no substitute for real life - but there again he was famously adventurous, a fact he used to advantage in his novels.
But I think most authors wouldn't agree.
On the opposite side of the spectrum you have Logan Pearsall Smith who said, "People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading."
I can relate to that. I like my own blood to stay on the inside of my body - whereas I don't mind reading, and writing, about someone else's blood spilling all over the page in the fight for justice, truth or freedom.
It's not really about coming down definitively on one side or the other I think. A writer's life should ideally contain both - a good smattering of life's experience but also a commitment to sitting down and recording the insights gained through that experience.
I don't know about you but I don't need much to inspire me.
I rarely spend my time socializing with large groups of people. I know some people do this all the time - as though it's some kind of duty. But, to me, a good, ideal day is when nobody comes around and disturbs my 'zone' and I can get on with my own stuff.
But whenever I do spend time with others, especially out with large groups or at parties and functions, I find I'm storing up hundreds of ideas for scenes, stories and plots I want to later develop in my writing.
It can be exhausting because, instead of just enjoying myself and interacting with others, I find I'm taking mental notes about personality, relationships and how, seemingly inevitably, people coming together creates as much tension, distrust and conflict as it engenders happiness, joy and hope.
We're a funny species in that regard - and I find that writing helps me deal with all the absurdities as well as the profundities of life in a way that would drive me crazy if I couldn't do it!
I know that if I was ever at a loss as to what to write about, pretty much all I need to do is go out into the world and brace myself for interaction - and inspiration!
But yes, sometimes when I'm completely immersed in a fictional world, juggling my characters' lives and developing meaning I sometimes take a step back and think, "What am I doing? Why am I spending so much time on this? What's it all for?"
After all, they say that life on Earth will be gone in a few million years - and all the books we've written, all the music and movies we created along with it. Who's going to be there to say, What an amazing species, look at this great book by...
Sometimes I look at our dogs and I can see that their entire lives are made up of eating, sleeping, getting pats and for the most part, barking at shadows. And I think, what's to say that we humans aren't really just doing the same?
And then, when the insanity passes, I know that this is one of the main reasons we write - to rise above mere existence and create order, meaning and purpose.
Because, you see, the real reason why my mother doesn't think that writing is a healthy pasttime is that it can 'give you ideas', as she calls it, and not always good ones.
By which she means writing can encourage a person to question the very fundamentals of existence and perhaps realize, as many hundreds of serious philosophers before us have already posited, that there really is no meaning to life that we don't, as humans, merely attach to it.
All else, they say, is vanity.
But on the upside, writing, though to some a strange way of spending our time, is at least better than sitting around wasting our lives, doing drugs or having nothing better to do than hurt each other.
Writing forces us to make sense of things, to come to terms with who we are, how we act, react, and why.
To me, we need no real justification to write - no special reason - its purpose is implicit.
We simply write because we can.
Rob Parnell's Writing Academy
“If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster.”