Why write?

I had to travel forty thousand years back in time to find out

Boy's Imagination from Katie Coppack PicsArt
Art by Sona @sona75 on PicsArt

As my manuscripts harvest more and more rejections, my posts go unread, my Patreon supporter-count remains stuck, my credit cards max-out, and Rose, manager of TJ Maxx, telling me she can’t hire me because I am overqualified and don’t have reliable transportation, I couldn’t be asking myself this question at a better time.

What impulse wakes me at five each morning to rush to the page with the excitement of a young boy on Christmas Day? There are no presents under the tree. At least not in the material sense.

Why go on then?

I guess for the same reason one of our earliest ancestors felt compelled to crawl into a cave in Monte Castillo, Spain, and, in a veil of darkness, stenciled his handprint on one of its walls as if simply wanting to say: I am! I exist!

Chauvet cave handprint

Thirty-thousand years later, writer Jack London echoed this long-distance greeting:

About me are great natural forces— colossal menaces, Titans of destruction, unsentimental monsters that have less concern for me than I have for the grain of sand I crush under my foot. In the maze and chaos of these vast and draughty Titans, it is for me to thread my precarious way. Here is the sea, the wind, and the wave. Here are the seas, the winds and the waves of all the world. Here is the ferocious environment. And here is difficult adjustment, the achievement of which is delight to the small quivering vanity that is I.

I am so made.

The ultimate word is ‘I Like.’ It lies beneath philosophy and is twined about the heart of life. When philosophy has maundered ponderously for a month, telling the individual what he must do, the individual says, in an instant: ‘I Like!’ and does something else. It is ‘I Like’ that makes the drunkard drink and the martyr wear a hair shirt; that makes one man a reveler and another man an anchorite; that makes one man pursue fame, another gold, another love, and another God.

Philosophy is very often a man’s way of explaining his own I LIKE.

“A man’s wants are to be trusted.” said American philosopher and psychologist William James. “Even when their gratification seems farthest off, the uneasiness they occasion is still the best guide of his life and will lead him to issues entirely beyond his powers of reckoning. Prune down his extravagance, sober him, and you undo him.”

This extravagant feeling of delight in art, this innate human need to imagine, create and understand, is the reason another artist, forty thousand years ago, spent months carving The Lion Man, the oldest representation of an imaginary being ever discovered.

Lion Man2
Image credit: MUEHLEIS YAM/LAD Esslingen

Set free by his community to imagine and create instead of joining his brothers on the hunt, the artist’s “I LIKE” impulse began weaving the human story, trying to make sense of our existence — our birth, origins, loves, joys, sufferings, spiritual longings and death — and bound us, through beauty, into a common culture and destiny.

Art, like prayer, is a hand outstretched in the darkness, seeking for some touch of grace which will transform it into a hand that bestows gifts. — Kafka

The gifts of the artist are like the gifts of the bread maker. One nourishes the soul, our body the other. Both essential, as Chilean poet Pablo Neruda said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song — but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny.

The poet is not a little god. He is not picked out by a mystical destiny in preference to those who follow other crafts and professions. I have often maintained that the best poet is he who prepares our daily bread: the nearest baker who does not imagine himself to be a god. He does his majestic and unpretentious work of kneading the dough, consigning it to the oven, baking it in golden colors and handing us our daily bread as a duty of fellowship. And, if the poet succeeds in achieving this simple consciousness, this too will be transformed into an element in an immense activity, in a simple or complicated structure which constitutes the building of a community, the changing of the conditions which surround mankind, the handing over of mankind’s products: bread, truth, wine, dreams.

Through the yeast of my writing, I seek to heal wounds, dry tears, replenish the fount of love, delight, and joy, and report on the goodness and beauty that surrounds us. If I manage to do this, even for just one person, I will have fulfilled my humble labor.

When everything else fails; when neither stenciled handprints, Lion Men, or bread metaphors fail to inspire me to write, I imagine myself commuting to work and wasting my talent inside a stuffy cubicle doing something I don’t like.

Death by cubicle

Instead, I get to spend all day as a child on a beach, combing seaweed and sand for seashells and seaglass, building word sandcastles, not once checking the clock hoping time had wings, and ending my long, extravagant day with more energy and enthusiasm than when I started.

Sounds to me like a worthwhile occupation.


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Prison Break

I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free!

At 54, I realized I was going to Hell.

The hell writer Paulo Coelho said is found twenty seconds before you die; when you look back and discover you did not dignify the miracle of existence with a life of purpose. Heaven, he added, is the realization that, while you erred, you gave it your all.

I had erred, yes, many times, and been wounded. But the wounds were sustained on a battlefield where I did not belong, wearing ill-fitting armor, and blazoning a coat of arms I had unwittingly assumed was mine. That’s why all my failures had a weird, unsatisfying aftertaste.

I had had enough. I was burned out without having been on fire. Did not want to voice the regrets common to those on their deathbed:

“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

“I wish I would’ve left myself be happier.”

“I wish I would’ve had the courage to express my true self.”

“I wish I’d lived a life true to my dreams instead of what others expected of me.”

So I quit.

Not surprisingly, most of what I love about my life started then.

My decision was not entirely conscious. Had I given it much thought, I would have never done it. At my age, with little money, no safety net, and few possessions, it seemed reckless. But if I ever was to find my path, I had to set fire to my life and burn the bridges.

“Too late,” some said. “You’re too old.”

How illustrative, this attitude, of the woeful resignation men and women succumb to, wrote Henry Miller. What stays them, usually, is the fear of the sacrifices involved. Even to relinquish their chains seems like a sacrifice.

I was willing to pay the price for a taste of bliss…for a life more abundant. Did not want to be like those middle aged men John Steinbeck wrote about, who:

“…begin to pack their lives in cotton wool, smother their impulses, hood their passions, and gradually retire from their manhood into a kind of spiritual and physical semi-invalidism. I see so many men delay their exits with a sickly, slow reluctance to leave the stage. Its bad theater as well as bad living.”

When my time’s up, I thought, I want to leave the stage as Greek writer Kazantzakis says we should, “not like scourged, tearful slaves, but like kings who rise from the table with no further wants, after having eaten and drunk to the full.”

I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free! is the epitaph etched on his tomb.

In ‘Report to Greco,’ the account of his life, his art, and spiritual quest, Kazantzakis said that a man’s worth lies not in victory, but in the struggle for victory. His worth lies in that he live and die bravely, without condescending to accept any recompense; with the certainty that no recompense exists, and that that certainty, far from making our blood run cold, must fill us with joy, pride, and manly courage.

The only thing I was certain of when jumping into the void was that I longed to be a writer. I had wanted it since I was eight-years old and felt I had a knack for it. I learned from philosopher William James that I should trust my wants; that even when their gratification seems farthest off, the uneasiness they occasion is still the best guide of my life and would lead me to issues entirely beyond my present powers of reckoning. He was right.

I also suspected the world would only get something of value from me at that crossing point Aristotle said is the place of our vocation – where our talents intersect with the needs of the world.

A few months into my new life, however, I was paralyzed, which gave way to fear, making me second-guess my decision. Something was holding me back.

On a long, solitary walk, I discovered what it was. I had walked away, yes, but was still shackled by my old chains: my old prejudices, misconceptions, illusions, self-delusions, fears, insecurities, vanities, and identity myths to which I unwittingly subscribed.

I had to smash them first. Not an easy thing because I ended up naked and vulnerable as when first born. Not easy, but the only way I found to bring about a rebirth, without which, as Goethe warned, I would remain nothing more than another troubled guest on earth.

I am not yet totally free, like Kazantzakis. I still fear and hope; still a grub, not yet butterfly. But I now blissfully twist and curl inside my true chrysalis and can feel the budding of wings.

The world is a better place to live in, wrote Walter Lippmann, because it contains human beings who will give up ease and security and stake their own lives in order to do what they themselves think worth doing. The things that are undertaken not for some definite, measurable result, but because someone, not counting the costs or calculating the consequences, is moved by curiosity, the love of excellence, a point of honor, the compulsion to invent or to make or to understand. They have in them the free and useless energy with which alone men surpass themselves. In such persons, mankind overcomes the inertia which would keep it earthbound forever in its habitual ways.

Lippman’s sentiment was echoed by a young writer, Owen Wilson, whose book, ‘The Outsider,’ was partly responsible for my ‘reckless’ decision. Man, he said, is potentially hero and genius; only inertia keeps him mediocre. The “self-surmounter” is never satisfied. He is cursed by a divine dissatisfaction choreographer Martha Graham described as “a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than others.”

I am no longer marching towards Hell, and now, for the first time in my life, I feel on fire, doing exactly what I believe I was meant to do.


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