The Essential Question for Writers

walledcity2For me, the big-daddy, litmus-test, most-uncomfortable-question-of-all has always been: do I need to be a writer, or merely want to? The implication being that one’s legitimacy as a writer depends on a yes to first part of the question, a no to the second. I’m going to try to answer the question honestly here, but to do so, I’ll have to take you back to some very different times and places from where we are today.

I don’t think envy was the prime impulse that got me writing (poetry in my thirties), but I do know that by my mid-twenties, I was already envying writers and intellectuals in general, while believing myself absolutely incapable of doing what they do. Not coincidentally, at this time I was struggling with depression, anxiety, panic attacks, major league insomnia, and an iron-clad conviction of my own worthlessness—particularly in matters of the intellect. I have a pretty good idea what brought these ills on: I was a sensitive child back in the ’50’s, and took extremely seriously my devout Catholic parents’ well-meant warnings that if I continued to indulge my irrepressible enthusiasm for, um, to use a street euphemism, polishing the bannister, I would—no escaping it—go to Hell. Alas, the more they warned, the more I polished.

Of course, my experiences weren’t unique. What was unusual for a kid from Boston, was that I ended up at the age of twenty-seven on good Dr. Correns’ couch—one of only two practicing psychiatrists, it was said, in a puritanical, buttoned-up Madrid, just awakening from its Francoist bad dream. The elegant shrink explained my life to a Freudian T: “You have a very strong id,” he said, reaming his cigarette holder with his pipe cleaner, “and very strong superego, and your ego is being crushed between them.” Ouch.

Run-of-the-mill neurotic, right? But what I’ve never understood is why my poor self-image defined me by my intellectual worthlessness, i.e., my stupidity (unless—and there may be some who’d second this, myself included at times—my self-image got it right). It wasn’t that I was particularly thick in school. In fact, in high school I was, by reputation, a cut-up who, if I only applied myself, etc., etc. And I did well enough in college. So how did I come to believe I was so dumb?

Okay, flashback to the fifties: little Jerry, nine or ten, tapping out on an old portable Underwood his first short story. It was to be a pious tale—a medieval Italian lad hauling a wagonload of firewood to the walled city, brigands lurking for him in the forest—inspired by the books I’d begun receiving in the mail from the Catholic Youth Book Club. I’d write a few sentences, then hide the loaded typewriter in my bedroom closet. (Why hide it? Probably to keep it from my older brother/roommate, who’d have had a field day with it.) I’m not sure what brought my father into that closet—cleaning the mess, I suppose—but he was sufficiently impressed by what he read to seek me out, typewriter in arms like a baby, and praise me to the stars, God bless him. My reaction was curious: fifty shades of blush and not another word of fiction for thirty-three years. Also curious: my one fictional publication thus far (moretocome), “Pasquale The Glassblower” (2012) is set in a walled city of Italy.

My reaction was consistent with the hyper-self-consciousness that’s always plagued me—less as the years go on. It made me an insomniac (how can you fall asleep watching yourself try to fall asleep?) but it also provided opportunities, for good and ill. It made me don various masks to find relief from it: class clown, actor, even my ‘teacherly’ persona (I love that ‘persona’ means ‘mask’ in Latin). But wait! What’s self-consciousness got to do with stupidity? And what’s stupidity got to do with my “need” (or not) to write fiction?

Well, now that we’ve mentioned Latin, let’s remember that the Latin ‘stupidus’ means ‘stunned’. And wasn’t my reaction to my father’s well-intentioned literary ‘outing’ of me, well, stunned silence? The fact is that self-consciousness can make you stupid, just as it can keep you from sleeping. (How can you think about something when you’re watching yourself think about it? Try it.) Self-consciousness focuses the brain on the wrong thing: itself. I suspect this phenomenon might be at the root of my self-fulfilling belief in my stupidity.

Now, I don’t want to pose here, thump my chest and proclaim (falsely) that I need to write fiction to rebel against all those horrible societal forces that drove me into my stunned, stupid silence. But it’s true that creating a fictional world provides me an antidote to the paralyzing, hermetic effects of excessive self-consciousness. Though the fictional world we create is an interior world, it’s a world where we have to focus on the needs of others—our characters; give them a voice and, well, character (even when the character, as in the case of the new Norwegian Sensation, Karl Ove Knausgaard, is more or less oneself).

And yes, writing fiction also provides me both a challenge to and a way of overcoming my ever-lying-in-wait “stupidity”. Writing does make me feel ‘smarter’, in some way, even on a bad day. It also, miraculously, makes me more generous: I no longer envy other writers their talent, as I once did; I usually celebrate it, though I might be forgiven for occasionally envying their publication success. And let’s be honest: there’s something about the conjuring and inhabiting of fictional fantasy worlds that’s not totally divorced from the fantastical pleasures conjured while polishing bannisters.

Whether anything or everything I’ve touched on here can be interpreted as the need to write, rather than the mere desire, I leave to you to judge. To tell you the truth, I’m still stumped. All I know is, tomorrow I’ll be back here writing.

3 comments

  1. Anna

    “Jerry’s publications to date include translations of Mario Vargas Llosa in Salmagundi” –Wonderful! Salmagundi is one of those dying languages we have been hearing so much about. Jerry, how and where did you happen to learn it? I myself grew up in a part of the Third World where an obscure dialect of Salmagundi was spoken, and I am probably one of the last living speakers of that language. Your English was so hard to learn, believe me, but by now I have achieved such fluency that the people I meet rarely identify me as one of those ESL folk. That’s good, because if they notice my occasional lapses in pronunciation or usage, they ask me what my first language was, and when I tell them, they say “Huh?” and look at me as though I were nuts, or perhaps an extraterrestrial.

    Seriously, now: excellent essay, with points of resemblance to my writing journey. Good fortune with materializing that Man. My own litmus test for legitimacy as a writer sidesteps the need/write issue by changing the language: If writing won’t let you go, then…

  2. Cynthia Johnson

    Someone once told me that in order to determine one’s true purpose, I should consider what I would do if no one was looking, if I didn’t get paid for it, if success wasn’t part of the equation-the answer for me was simple. WRITING.
    I write because it helps me make sense of the world. I write because it feels almost as good as the best sex…sometimes, even better. I write because I’m a much better human being to myself and others when I write. I write because in a world where I have absolutely no control, where volcanoes can erupt at anytime and the earth is apt to quake in a blink of an eye, writing is there to soothe my savage beast.

    Quite honestly, Jerry, at a difficult time in my life, your words comforted me like a healing balm. I know why you write because you’re damn good at it…and it’s not important why, but you must. And at a time when I started on an unchartered course, you were there to hold my writer’s hand.

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