Let me begin with an excerpt from a letter I once received from a former student:
When people have interviewed you, have you ever been asked, why do you write? Another teacher asked us that and it really made me nervous. So I said that the question really made me nervous and then answered in a kind of inarticulate way—I think I said something about feeling present. I'm not trying to covertly ask you that question but was just wondering if you are comfortable with it. If the answer is yes that would be cool because then I can feel like I might evolve in that vein. And if it is no that would also be good because I would feel like I was not alone in my feelings. Immediately I thought of Flannery O’Connor’s response to a student who attended one of her lectures and who asked her this very question: “Miss O’Connor, why do you write?”
“Because I am good at it.”
“At once,” O’Connor said later, “I felt a considerable disapproval in the atmosphere . . . but it was the only answer I could give. I had not been asked why I write the way I do, but why I write at all; and to that question there is only one legitimate answer.”
I’m not sure why writers are so often asked to give their reasons for doing what they do. I don’t believe the same question is asked with anything like the same frequency of, say, visual artists or composers or performers. I have at times said that I write because it is what I know how to do, or because it is who I am, or because it has fulfilled this or that desire or need, and I have always been painfully conscious of how unsatisfactory these answers are.
You can read between the lines of the letter from my student, who was still in her teens, and who has clearly been led to believe that if she wants to write she should be able to state her motives. I want her to know that, first of all, she is not alone, that the question makes a lot of writers nervous or uncomfortable, that the same writer may have many different motives for writing, that a writer’s motives may change over time, and, above all, that the fact that she has no ready answer to the question is no reason for anxiety. I want her to know what George Orwell said, that “at the very bottom of [all writers’] motives there lies a mystery . . . some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand,” perhaps “the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.”
I can say that I don’t remember a time when I did not want to write, and that it all began with being read to as a small child. Fairy tales, folk tales, classical mythology, children’s books—the ones about animals most of all. The wonderful Dr. Seuss. He was the first writer I ever tried to imitate, and I can remember saying exactly these words as a child: “When I grow up, I want to be Dr. Seuss.” Indeed, for years after this declaration, I thought children’s books were what I would write.
So, very early then, I equated reading with making people happy. And once I had learned to read, I discovered what a glorious thing it was to escape through a good book into some other world, at least for a time. It was a kind of double blessing: reading was a private, solitary experience, something you could withdraw into; and yet, when you were reading, you were never really alone. There was always the storyteller. There were always the characters. They were there when you needed them. They were your friends. And this corresponds to what I would one day learn about writing itself. The writing life appealed to me first of all because I saw it as something I could do alone, hidden, in the privacy of my room. But soon I discovered, as all writers do, that writing was an ideal way to escape the world and to be a part of the world at the same time.
Given what a rewarding childhood experience reading was for me, it was only natural that I’d want to create poems and stories myself. And, in the New York City public schools I attended, there was always some creative writing class or extracurricular literary activity in which I could participate and where my writing was encouraged, strengthening my desire to pursue a literary life. And, of course, there was no end of good books to read.
When I was old enough to read adult books, I fell in love with nineteenth-century so-called realist novels, those grand Victorian tomes, and among my literary heroes the most beloved was probably Charles Dickens. Here was proof that the possibilities for literature and the power of storytelling were boundless. He had all the gifts, and, losing myself in one of his capacious novels for long periods of time, I had no doubt: this was genius I held in my hands. No matter how exaggerated, his characters were utterly real to me, and Virginia Woolf was surely right when she attributed Dickens’s astonishing power to make his characters so alive to the fact that he saw them as a child sees them. As for his elaborate plots, no matter how high the incidence of improbable coincidence on which they relied, I believed every word. Equally impressive were the beauty and precision of his prose, his concern for social justice, and the compassion with which he wrote about human suffering.
Among other things that literature could do, then, was this: show the reality of other people, and what those people might be going through—people who were completely different from oneself. As the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk has put it,
Novels are political not because writers carry party cards—some do, I do not—but because good fiction is about identifying with and understanding people who are not necessarily like us. By nature all good novels are political because identifying with the other is political. At the heart of the “art of the novel” lies the human capacity to see the world through others’ eyes. Compassion is the greatest strength of the novelist. For a time when I was very young, I ended every story I wrote with the words And then I woke up! I remember distinctly the day a teacher told me I must stop doing that. You see, she explained, it’s perfectly okay to write a story in which wild, impossible things happen without having it all turn out to have been just a dream. “And then I woke up” was not only unnecessary but in fact a disappointing way to end a story, didn’t I see? It was one of those childish things that I must put behind me.
Now I think that I developed this bad habit at least partly because I was afraid that I might be seen as trying to pass off as reality something I had made up (and back then every story I wrote was completely made up; you won’t find many little kids indulging in autofiction). As children we are taught that lying is wrong; a moral person always tells the truth. And I have always been curious: How and when does a child come to understand that it is not only permissible but a very good thing to make things up, to pretend that what never happened happened? How and when does a person come to understand that fiction can be a way, perhaps one of the most important ways we have—perhaps even, in some cases, a better way—of getting at the truth, at the reality of human experience, than fact? After all, the main purpose of storytelling is to make us more aware of ourselves and of the world around us. To do this most effectively, you don’t just tell what happened. You tell what might have happened, what should or should not have happened. What could happen. You write fiction to answer the question: What if . . . ?
When I got to college, though the practice of writing remained a passion, my feelings about becoming a writer changed. It was then that I learned what Thomas Mann meant when he said that a writer is someone for whom writing is harder than it is for other people; what Roland Barthes meant when he called a creative writer a person for whom language is a problem. I began to understand that, no matter what the rewards might be, from now on writing would always be a struggle. It wasn’t all fun, as it had been in childhood. It wasn’t play, it was work—it was very hard work. It wasn’t an effort that was always going to be encouraged, let alone applauded, by my teachers—or by anyone else, for that matter. I was learning that frustration, failure, and rejection were a large and inescapable part of any writer’s life.
People ask, Is it really that hard to be a writer, as we so often hear? Writers themselves, ever prone to exaggeration, have found vivid and dramatic ways of expressing it. Sportswriter Red Smith, for example: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.” David Rakoff once said that writing was like having his teeth pulled out—through his penis. “Writing is not a profession, but a vocation of unhappiness,” declared Georges Simenon, at the time the best-selling author in the world. According to Joan Didion, “the peculiarity of being a writer is that the entire enterprise involves the mortal humiliation of seeing one’s own words in print.”
“Writing means always being wrong,” said Philip Roth:
All your drafts tell the story of your failures. . . . To write is to be frustrated. You spend your time writing the wrong word, the wrong sentence, the wrong story. You continually fool yourself, you continually fail, and so you have to live in a state of perpetual frustration. You spend your time telling yourself, That doesn’t work, I have to start again. Oh, that doesn’t work either—and you start again. Six years before his death, Roth told an interviewer that he was tired of it all and that he had given up. He’d stuck a Post-it on his computer: The struggle with writing is over. “I look at that note every morning,” he said, “and it gives me such strength.”
My own college writing teacher, Elizabeth Hardwick, used to tell her students that if there was anything else they could do with their lives instead of becoming writers—any other profession—they should do it. For her, though, the frustration of writing was as nothing compared with the frustration of teaching writing. “I tried to read your story,” she once said to me. “I really did, but I just couldn’t do it, it was just . . . too . . . boring.” And, to another student, about his story: “I’d rather shoot myself than read that again.”
Here is another question writers are often asked: Where do you get your ideas? And here I like to quote Flannery O’Connor again: “You don’t write a story because you have an idea but because you have a believable character or just simply because you have a story.”
Like many of her students, I revered Elizabeth Hardwick—the first professional writer I ever met—and hung on her every word. I remember how enthusiastic she was about the work of a great number of writers. But now and then a name would come up, often a well-known name, and she would shake her head and say, “Well, he” (or “she”) “doesn’t have any real ideas.” And for these writers who had no real ideas Professor Hardwick clearly had much disdain. Whatever literary gifts they might have, however well they might be doing in the marketplace, these idea-less writers could not be taken seriously.
I remember that this caused me much anxiety. I wanted to be a writer. And I put the question to myself: Did I have any ideas? And if I did, were they the kinds of ideas Professor Hardwick was talking about—“real” ones, which of course I took to mean serious and important ones? Were my ideas serious and important enough to justify my desire to write? For I had reached a stage where I felt that I needed permission to write.
And how was this supposed to work, anyway? Did you come up with the ideas first, satisfy yourself that they were real, then find a story that would do justice to them? How daunting such a process seemed to me. How difficult. How strange. I knew this couldn’t be right. But if you started a story without any real ideas in mind, how could you be sure they would come to you in the course of writing?
And so, when I first learned what the master storyteller Flannery O’Connor had said—you don’t write a story because you have an idea but because you have a story—I felt considerable relief. For what she said made perfect sense to me, and I thought for sure she must be right.
Well then. Stories I had. And when I learned that O’Connor also said that anyone who has survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of their life, I thought this, too, must be right. So: I had stories. And, like everyone else, I had a childhood, one that, as it happened, I wanted very much to write about (and that indeed one day I would write about). I had a childhood, and I had stories from childhood. Memories. Observations, reflections, opinions. I had a way—my own way—of remembering and of seeing. I had things I wanted to say about the world and about my experiences, and I wanted both to remember and to imagine all this into life on the page.
But were these memories and reflections of mine, were my way of seeing and remembering and so on, what Professor Hardwick would have called real ideas? I didn’t think so. I only knew that, out of my own being in the world and, increasingly, out of the many great books I was reading, I wanted to be writing. And I now knew one other very important thing as well. I knew that if I spent every moment of the rest of my life trying, I would never come up with a Great Idea, and that if I thought too much about whether my ideas were real, whether they were deep or original or serious enough, I would never be able to write at all.
Of course, the more we read, the more we understand how much of literature deals with many of the same big questions as does philosophy: What is the role of human beings in the universe? What is the relationship between the individual and society? What is reality? Why are things as they are? What is the nature of good and evil? How should a human being live? What is death? If everyone must die, what is the meaning of life?
Much harder to say, though, is how much the worth of a literary work depends—or should depend—on the significance of its ideas and how successfully the author deals with them.
In the nineteenth century, the period widely regarded as the Western novel’s golden age, the notion of the novel as a genre ruled by ideas was taken for granted, and among writers and readers alike there would have been general agreement with Victor Hugo’s definition of a novelist as a historian of morals and ideas. But as we well know, it was one of Western Modernism’s Big Ideas that ideas themselves must go. For an ardent Modernist like Virginia Woolf, the novelist should reject the mantle of intellectual authority and seek to write novels that were more like poems. And, once it had arrived, this new kind of novel, considered by most writers and readers to be more artful, not to mention hipper—or, as we might say now, sexier—than the old, was here to stay.
To the question, Where do you get your ideas? Vladimir Nabokov’s response was to roll his eyes. “I’ve no general ideas to exploit,” he insisted. “I just like composing riddles with elegant solutions.” He did not think in ideas, he said, he thought in images. What mattered in a work of literature was strictly structure and style, according to Nabokov, who famously taught his college students that the notion of great ideas in a book was “hogwash.”