by Kathryn Heyman
When asked that question, Isaac Asimov famously replied with: “For the same reason I breathe.” I love the implication of necessity his response evokes: I write because I will not survive if I don’t. I write because it is my life source. Recently, I did a SCUBA diving course. To my surprise, on my first dive, I panicked, unable to comprehend how I could breathe under water. My instructor touched his chest in a signal: just breathe. But I couldn’t, I couldn’t understand how breath worked, how I could get it to my lungs. I was pretty certain I was going to die (spoiler: I didn’t.) Breath seemed, for the first time ever, impossible. Like happiness, it becomes problematic when focused on too carefully. And like happiness, it requires certain conditions. Breath rarely requires effort, but it does require readiness, fitness, calm.
Earlier this year I presented the address at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and in preparation I asked writer friends that same question. Many of the responses were, effectively, wails of despair: “Right now, with a book coming out, I don’t know why I do it. Why do I?” British writer Jill Dawson, though, said, “Fiction is my first language. It’s how I understand the world.” More than breath, in other words, it is also blood, also heart, also brain.
Is writing an end in itself, as simple as breath? Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, thought that the aim of life is eudaimonia, wellbeing or flourishing, which seems, to me, to be different from our general contemporary life goal of mere happiness. Can the writing life achieve that state of eudaimonia?
Clearly not for everyone. As Annie Dillard said (in The Writing Life) of writing a novel, “There’s no call to take human extremes as norms.” For most people writing is instrumental; it’s a means to another, more pressing end:
writing to persuade
writing to explain
writing to entertain
writing for pay
writing for academic research points
For many, writing is seen as a path to fame and fortune. So, for example, J.K.Rowling is celebrated not as a writer, as such, but as a celebrity. This is the dominant media view of writing – the New York Times bestselling author is queen. In this case, success is the meaning and end of life, the only real road to eudaimonia, while the actual writing is merely a necessary chore to be carried out along the way. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott describes in painful detail the process of delivering an introductory talk to new writing students, explaining that it’s not about success, it’s about the story; it’s not about fame but about deep reflection; not about publication but about getting the truth. At the end, the new writers put up their hands and ask: so how do I get an agent?
Like Lamott, in many years of teaching new and emerging writers, I’ve delivered lengthy talks on the purpose of writing: the importance of instinct, of valuing the word as breath. But two conversations always come up: how do I get a six figure deal? And, ‘If Dan Brown is so bad, why is he so rich?”
I can’t answer either of those questions. But I can tell you this: if you’re in it solely for the money, your best bet is to go into armaments trading.
There are some people for whom writing itself is central. Often these people can’t help themselves. It’s not that they are determined to write, so much as that they can’t stop writing. An author such as Jackie French, children’s laureate, appears to be one such – she has published more than 140 books. Though she started writing to earn the cash for her car registration, nowadays writing is what she does. There are very many people who write regularly and at great length. Stephanie Dowrick and others promote journal writing as a habit of life. Without paper and pen, I have always felt somewhat untethered, as thought I cannot filter the world properly, as though I cannot breathe.
But writers who publish perceive their habit as one of communication, not only with the self but also, perhaps primarily, with the other. This potentially solipsistic activity, “one damned word after the other”, as Lamott called it, seems always to imply a community, starting with the relationship between the writer and the reader. Flannery O’Conner called writing “the homeliest, and most concrete, and most unromanticizable of all arts… Unless the novelist has gone utterly out of his mind, his aim is still communication, and communication suggests talking inside a community.” (Mystery and Manners).
Aristotle wrote of the need to cultivate moral virtues in order to achieve a life well-lived. In Greek philosophy virtue, arete does not so much suggest goodness as excellence.
Aristotle developed his ‘doctrine of the mean’ to explain how a particular virtue sits half-way between two undesirable extremes. The virtue of courage, for instance, sits somewhere between cowardice (being overwhelmed by fear) and rashness (remaining insensible to fear). And courage, it seems to me, is one of the primary writerly virtues. But finding this mean is far from a mechanical calculation. It requires the practical wisdom, phronesis, we touched on in the previous post. I’ll reflect in my next post on the other crucial writerly virtues, those that give life. But you might have your own, secret or not-so-secret, list of writing virtues.