I’m not sure how other fiction writers and poets feel about the choice they’ve made to ignore friends and family and the world at large in order to spend innumerable hours alone in a room with the door closed, computer screen or blank page glaring at them, but the sorry fact is, I can’t imagine not doing it, just as I can’t imagine a life without windows and doorknobs. When I was in the seventh grade at Highland School in Libertyville, Illinois, I developed the habit of writing tortured love poems about boys who never looked twice at me unless it was to laugh at my frizzed-out hair and oversized ‘80s glasses. I assumed that you had to have some sense of yourself as having been chosen (by a god or a demon, maybe both) in order to lay claim to the writer’s magic cloak of eloquence. I didn’t have access to any cloaks, nor did I think that supernatural beings, good or evil, had my number. (But wait! I did kiss the Blarney Stone on a chilly May afternoon in 1992, which was rumored to impart eloquence to the foolish few who lay down on their backs and suspended themselves over a rickety grate on the roof of a medieval Irish castle to kiss it. The rumor was that mischievous boys also liked to pee on it.)
My junior year in college, however, I decided that I didn’t have to wait around for someone to tell me I could write and go on to inflict this writing on people who had previously liked me. This was the same year that I studied in France and visited many museums in major European cities and got the sense that maybe I could become a part of a conversation that had less to do with where I would buy my next mini-skirt and more to do with how it felt to understand that people everywhere had frizzed-out hair and suffered from unrequited crushes and somehow also recovered from them well enough to write triumphant blogs about what it means to be a writer in 2010, one who drinks too much soda and worries about her friends’ happiness and her neighbor’s alarming tendency to shriek loudly after midnight (because of a video game, I think, rather than because someone is beating him bloody).
That junior year in Strasbourg, home of a truly amazing cathedral and many 5-star boulangeries, along with disgusting plates of choucroute (several bulging sausages on a heap of stinky sauerkraut), I read a lot of books and wrote more bad love poems and had an easy academic year of it: aside from reading assignments for my classes at the Université des Sciences-Humaines, we didn’t have many exams, only one per semester. My friend Kate Robes Soehren and I traveled a couple of weekends each month on our Eurail passes and the rest of the time, we mooned around Strasbourg’s winding, cobblestone streets, visiting the most picturesque parts of the city, la Petite France, la Rue des Juifs, la Place Broglie - many of this city’s poetic streets and neighborhoods. I also had an elaborate fantasy about writing a memoir (before this genre had become the flavor du jour) about my experiences abroad, but I didn’t get past the first few pages in my notebook (which in France has graph instead of college-ruled paper, something I never got used to). But I did keep writing poetry and short, witless essays about love and inflicting them on my friends.
Three years after Strasbourg, I enrolled in Indiana University’s MFA program in creative writing and wrote more poems and sent them to journals and got rejection letters and felt jealous of other writers’ successes and lived with it and eventually had some poems published and started writing fiction in earnest. When my first short story was accepted by the Laurel Review in 1999, I opened the acceptance letter in my bedroom and cried. Someone with a little bit of power in the literary world had read my story and declared it interesting enough to publish. Someone who wasn’t my friend. Presumably, other strangers would read my work and maybe like it too, and eventually they would track me down and offer me homemade chocolate cakes and millions of dollars, as well as long weekends in the country with handsome movie stars, a regal house in Provence, a coveted table at Spago and prizes for my brilliant novels as well as my bowling skills (I have my own shoes and one tarnished trophy).
I suppose you see where I’m heading: we write, most of us, I believe, because we want to be adored and respected and remembered (and gifts of large sums of money would be fine too, once in a while, at least). We also want to believe that we see the world in a way that helps other people feel better about how they see the world and their place in it, especially during uncertain times. Writing is a way for us to speak without raising our voices to the pitch of shrill invective. It is a way for us to see something remarkable or beautiful or both and record it for others who will adore and remember it too.