Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Desire to Write: More than an Act of Ego

    A little over a year ago, I came to the realization that I should write a book. I had played with the idea of a book in my head. It was all a "what if" sort of thing.

    "What if I wrote a book?"

    "If I wrote a book, I'd want it to be like..."

    But then on a bright fall morning while talking to my friend in the front of his house, amidst his encouragement and enthusiasm about my writing, he kept saying I should write a book and was excited about it. It clicked and it felt right. The other ideas about what I might do with my writing, like having a blog with a large following, writing for a magazine, or writing a column fell away. I felt strongly that the thing to aim for now was a book. All of a sudden it actually seemed possible.

    I felt good about this realization, but telling others, "hey, I want to write a book" was harder for me. I wondered if it sounded presumptuous. Who was I to write a book? What did think I had to say? While I have received positive feedback, I think I felt odd about telling others that I want to write a book because there is an element of self-aggrandizement to writing and for that matter, art in general. As William Zinsser says in On Writing Well, "Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it." When it comes to my decision to pursue writing, I've wondered whether it's a bit too self-centered, especially the kind of writing I like best. I love non-fiction books where writers talk about their own experiences and beliefs. Sometimes it's a book of essays. Sometimes it's a memoir. Sometimes it's a book an author writes about a certain topic but is peppered with personal anecdotes from their lives. Too self-centered? Essayist and children's book author E.B. White had this to say in the forward to a book of his essays: "I have always been aware that I am by nature self-absorbed and egotistical; to write of myself to the extent that I have done indicates a too great attention to my own life, not enough to the lives of others." Yet, my intention is to write something like these books that I've loved, something where I use my own experiences to write about the topics that are important to me. It seems like a valid claim to say that writing, especially this kind of writing, is more of an ego boost than anything else. Why do I think explanations of my life and opinions are worth your time? What value is there in all these people, myself included, expressing their feelings, their thoughts, their experiences? These are loaded questions, but my experience with this sort of writing is how I know there's value to it despite my questions about its arrogance. 

    There's a quote that I love from C.S. Lewis about friendship that I think also describes a powerful feeling that can happen when we read. It goes: "The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, 'What? You too? I thought I was the only one.'" It's a strange thing how alone we can feel at times. Sometimes it's as light as being a fan of a little cult movie hardly anyone knows about. Of course it gets heavier. Painful experiences are often isolators. Somehow we can logically know that there are others out there who are like us, but we still feel alone, and with that, there's such a joy in finding that one other person who understands. Sometimes it helps just to find someone who at least is aware of that thing that we feel sets us apart even if he doesn't feel the same about it. To go back to Lewis, he says: "In [friendship],...Do you love me? means Do you see the same truth?--Or at least, 'Do you care about the same truth?' The man who agrees with us that some question, little regarded by others, is of great importance can be our Friend. He need not agree with us about the answer." Whether it's finding someone who cares about the same questions, or who has seen the same truth, we know that that discovery creates powerful bonds between people. But we aren't just limited to the people we know in our immediate life. I came across the idea in a book that one of the benefits of reading is that it allows us to have fellowship with people without the limits of distance or circumstances or time. All art allows us to connect to people we wouldn't have known. So when artists, and in my dilemma, certain nonfiction writers, share their own experiences, views and feelings, it transcends a mere act of ego by providing more opportunity for us to feel understood and not alone.

    In the afterword to one of my favorite books, a memoir called Severe Mercy, the author, Sheldon Vanauken, goes into some detail about the way readers responded to what he wrote that gives a fuller picture of how it helped them not feel alone. Here is a book where the author goes into great detail about his own life; his marriage, his wife's death, and his own spiritual journey, but it's obvious that it's much more than a chance for the author to make others hear his story. He says about a reception held in honor of the book: "In the midst of the gaiety, first one person and then another would draw me apart to tell me, sometimes with misty eyes, how much the book had meant. I was touched, but there was something faintly odd that I couldn't quite place. Suddenly it came to me: they were speaking, each of them, as though they -and they alone- had been stabbed to the heart." He says that later, letters came in where people felt that he and they were kindred because they believed that the impact his work had on them was unique to them. He says that they were kindred, "but in a broader kinship than they knew."

    Vanauken draws some conclusions about why people seemed to feel like they alone related to him: "It is, I think, that we are all so alone in what lies deepest in our souls, so unable to find the words and perhaps the courage to speak with unlocked hearts, that we do not know that it is the same with others. And since I had been compelled, somewhat reluctantly, to go beyond reticence, readers were moved to kinship with one they felt to be the only other being who also knew." So when writers have the courage, as he says, to write about some truth that they've found, even if it means being very personal and vulnerable, it can be invaluable to others.Because some are particularly gifted with words, or, I think more often, have had the time to reflect on the experience that they've had that's like ours, it can be very cathartic for them to be able to say what we felt and couldn't express. There's something about being able to name what felt vague and harness the confusion of all our emotions. By showing us that they understand where we are at, authors can also help move us beyond and help us get to a healthier place than we were before. It can be crucial in the midst of suffering or confusion to hear that someone else got through it, and that piece of wisdom they pass on to us might be that thing that keeps us going, that gives us hope. It might even be through them that God speaks into our lives and brings us some of the answers we've been seeking.

    To think back to A Severe Mercy, for me, while I certainly found passages in it relatable, it's value for me lies more in how I learned from Vanauken's story. Vanauken saw something in his story that made it worth sharing, that had a deeper meaning to it that went beyond the specifics of his life. As Luci Shaw says in her book about creativity and faith, Breath for the Bones, "Art finds meaning in all of human experience or endeavor, drawing from it strength and surprise by reminding us of what we know but may never have truly recognized before, transcending our particularity with soaring ease." It can seem arrogant for someone to speak so directly about their views of the world, their experiences, their lives, as authors do when they write non-fiction, but isn't all art an assertion of how you view the world? Isn't all art a way of making an observation, a statement, an expression of how you feel? To quote more from Luci Shaw, "Art is what we say, what we sing, and what we show (in bodily movement or the work of our hands) about what is bubbling up within us, that which cries for recognition and response. Because it seems so special, so wondrous, so extraordinary to us--this upwelling from our creative imaginations--we want to share it with kindred spirits. And so we have poetry readings and gallery exhibits of art and concerts and square dances and films and fashion shows and coffee table books." So I think with Vanauken, and other writers like him, they just happen to be using their own lives and experiences in a more direct way than other artists often do to try to find meaning, Truth, and beauty. Yes, there is an element of ego in writing about yourself, and perhaps sometimes we use art, any art, to draw attention to ourselves, but it's definitely more than an act of ego.

    So when I tell you I want to write a book, and even more, when I tell what kind of book I want to write, I guess it does mean that I'm presumptuous enough to assume that I have something to say, and that my ramblings about my life are worth your time. But I hope that what say helps someone feel understood and that it helps someone make sense of their lives as share how I've made sense of mine.