There’s a thing I want to say. I heard it coming up when I was sitting in Starbucks yesterday. Watching the sun and the people in the sun and thinking this was as good a place as any for a writer and a teacher to be composing his thoughts. And I was imagining composed thoughts — organized and clear and inspiringly meaningful. And instead I was watching a father and his young son have an argument. The four-year-old boy wanted to climb the back of the booth he was sitting on, and then he wanted to lay down on the seat. And the father wanted him to stop. Whichever he chose, just stop and be motionless. The only solution for the father was for his son to sit still, to sit down in the chair and behave as — well, as he himself was. In all his age and sediment. The argument grew to a boil, with the son never quite getting the sitting in the seat right and the father getting more upset each time. Finally at one point he reached over to grab his son’s knee, force him upright, and threatened to take away his cookie. Which he did. Which he did because the boy didn’t obey. The boy couldn’t find it in his small legs and busy hands to sit still. And away went the cookie. And on came the tears.
They did, too. The boy began to cry. He started to rub hard against his eyes. And the dad stood to go. Asking brusquely if the boy wanted at least to keep his water. The boy said only one thing, and he said it probably ten times during their exit from the store. Through his tears and in the stretched-mouthed crying voice of young children, he kept saying: “I want to say something. I want to say something.” And his father ignored the request.
After they left, I thought: There’s a thing I want to say. There’s a thing I want to say to people, people who do not know me but read me, people all who have something they want to say.
Writing is an aching occupation. You learn that the more you write, the more you look inside for stories, the more you realize that the characters you want to put in your stories are pulled from people with lives you may only partially understand. That there is this orbiting that goes on in our lives. People and people and people all around us, moving around us, curious and careful and scared and amused and loving. They’re there. All around. And they’re real. Very, very real. They can be touched, they can be hurt, they can be stolen from, they can be honored.
And I look at the words I’m writing and I think: Are these teaching words? What do these have to do with digital writing? Is this what I’m supposed to write for this blog post? It isn’t. But it would be irresponsible if I didn’t at least try.
See, I’ve been in the world awhile. Not a long time, but awhile. And I’ve been writing for most of that time, and I’ve struggled with loving for most of that time, with compassion and anger. And the struggle of that keeps drawing me back to writing, to the putting that struggle on paper and pixel so that I can understand it better. But there’s more than that, too. And you already know some of it.
Writers have a responsibility. That’s what I started out to write about. Writers have a responsibility. And originally, I thought that responsibility had to do with telling the truth and being honest; or it had to do with trying to make a home on the Internet; or that we need to be conscientious about how we work, and for whom our words toil. But maybe that’s not it. Maybe that’s not it at all. Maybe there’s something even more important than truth and self-sufficiency to a writer. And it comes from that moment when the child wants to say something.
In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard talks about how writers live in isolation, away from the world, remembering the real as they write. She says that the worst part of the writing life is not being one of “Many fine people who are out there living, people whose consciences permit them to sleep at night despite their not having written a decent sentence that day, or ever.” But what if I disagree? What if I think the worst part of the writing life are the days we spend all our time writing?
Much ado is made of Thoreau’s escapade in the wood which he recorded in his timeless piece, Walden. “Ah,” many writers say, “if only I could find that isolation. Then I could really write.” But as much as Thoreau likes to say he was alone there, he was in fact not far from town. He made trips to town daily to speak with others, to interact, to invite people out to his hermitage by the pond. He did not live alone. And much of the best writing in Walden comes out his direct interaction with others, or his insight into human society and culture.
Is it okay for a writer to live in isolation? Is it okay to set oneself up in a cabin on the edge of a cold island shore and type away under the protection of a wool scarf and hat? Is it okay to eschew digital communities, to not respond to comments on our blogs? I want to ask you: Does a writer have the right, the privilege of walking away to be alone? And what happens when she does?
What about the responsibility a writer has to a little boy who just wants “to say something?” Is it the writer’s job to write? Or is it the writer’s job to live? To be part of culture — digital culture, too — in even more intimate ways than those who don’t write?
I’m not talking about a writer living life in order to find material. I’m not talking about not isolating ourselves because then we don’t learn anything new, or encounter anything new. It’s possible, just possible, that what a writer really needs is compassion. That compassion and sympathy and an open-heartedness are the writer’s greatest tools. For while it may be fun to go about and look at people as material and glean characters from their behaviors, plots from their conflicts, I don’t know that we can forget these same people will be our readers. And there has to be a reason they read.
I’ve spent a lot of my teaching years thinking about why writing occurs. Why we are drawn to writing at all. But maybe I need to be thinking about why people read. What draws people to immerse themselves, seek relief, or attempt to find themselves in our words, in the words of the world’s writers. Because they do. And because they do, I am necessary. All of us are utterly necessary.
Writing is an aching occupation. And maybe not because we do it all alone. But maybe because we can’t ever be alone. We can’t ever turn our backs on the world to which we simply must belong. We have to keep looking. We have to be present. And our compassion and sympathy must be the filter over our lens on the world.
Without the people, we have no stories. Without the people, we have no audience. Without the world, we have no reason to write.