Constantin Alajalov, cover for The Saturday Evening Post, February 12, 1949
Most nights, before I go to bed, I sneak into the room where my infant son sleeps, steal across the floor, and kill the wireless router. The plug pulls away from the wall with a soft, satisfying sound, and on the plastic box a row of twinkling green lights blinks out.
I’ve learned I have to do this. Otherwise, in the morning, I’ll succumb to temptation: I’ll rise, open my laptop, and start reading the news. I know that that decision will feel innocuous, even necessary, in the moment. But I also know I want to spend my morning writing as much as I can—and that a working Wi-Fi signal has the power to derail me. Even fifteen minutes of headline-scanning Twitter—if I can limit it to that—leaves me feeling overloaded, angry, panicked, worn out, weirdly high. So instead of flooding my mind with other voices, I back away. My work begins then with an act of disconnection, this physical severing I perform each night before I go to sleep.
As much as we carp about the increasing digitization of our lives, this isn’t really a new problem. Writing required cord-cutting long before the computer. It’s an act of refusal, of relinquishment, and of retreat, a decision to turn away from the world and its noise of possibilities, to chase instead a signal down the quiet of a page. That work—the deep, sustained kind that yields poems and essays and fiction—can only happen in solitude, and in silence.
And that’s the trouble.
Over the past year, on Twitter and in private conversations, I’ve heard writers express doubt about the literary impulse, the backing away that it requires. Even if you don’t write, you’ve probably felt it, too. The need to be present, vocal, and accounted for as citizens is especially obvious in 2017. The moment demands constant vigilance and participation—and the idea of turning inward, even briefly, can feel shameful.
Not that anyone has lost faith in literature itself—far from it. In times of crisis especially, finished books demonstrate an extraordinary ability to console, challenge, and guide us. But I’ve watched writers grow queasier about process. There’s no guarantee our works in progress—those hopeful, half-formed things still struggling into being—will ever be worth the time we steal to write them.
This tension—between private work and public duty, between art and life itself—has been a source of anxiety and fascination for me over the past five years, which I’ve spent interviewing writers. The overt goal of By Heart, my ongoing column for The Atlantic—now collected alongside new pieces in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process—is for authors to discuss a favorite passage from literature, explaining how its impact transformed them. But I push writers to go even deeper in each piece, too. Why do they write? I want to know. And how do they justify the time and solitude it takes? Now, more than a hundred and fifty interviews later, I think I’ve edged closer to some answers.
There’s only one honest place to start, and that is this: writing begins with an impulse that is beyond justification. Khaled Hosseini admits it’s a “compulsion.” Mark Haddon calls it “a borderline pathological obsession, something I have to do regularly to feel human.” In general, the authors I talk to seem to agree: Writing is not something people do because they looked at the world dispassionately and decided literature is what we needed more of. It’s an urge, above all else, something as primal as hunger or lust, more covenant than choice. Which means, for most, the hardship of writing is simply preferable to the misery of not writing. As Kathryn Harrison put it: “I love writing, and I’m miserable without it—and as time goes by, the people around me are miserable also.”
Still, the fact that literary production stems from a kind of primal hunger doesn’t quite dispel our lingering guilt: the act itself can feel like abdication. When we’re writing, after all, there’s so much we’re not doing. We’re not paying attention to friends, to family, to the news—our phones are off, our cords are cut. It’s hard to ditch the queasy feeling that the creative retreat is an escapist privilege.
In a recent By the Book entry in the New York Times Book Review, Andy Weir likened writing to a joyful diversion, one that’s best left unvexed by political and ethical perturbations. He takes the writer’s disconnected posture to the extreme—suggesting his art should be produced and read in a hermetically sealed safe space, free from external concerns.
“I tend to avoid fiction that’s too dark or serious or has a political message. For me, fiction is a form of escapism. I want to leave the real world, not sit around and stress about it,” he wrote.
Weir, in his way, has a point: writers don’t necessarily owe the world anything except work that can be enjoyed by others. But it’s hard to get behind this hard-line brand of escapism when you read the rest of Weir’s piece, which he used—as literary Twitter quickly pointed out—to exclusively celebrate the work of other famous white dudes. Weir’s an unwitting and dramatic example of a famous slippery slope: the worship of art for art’s sake can become a refusal to reckon with our own complicity in a flawed status quo.
But most of the writers I talk to desire not to escape the world but to enlarge it, by extending the possibilities of language. I think Amy Tan put it best: “The feeling I’m talking about stems from the sense that we can never fully share the truth of who we are,” she told me. “When I was six or seven, I used to read a thesaurus searching for the words that meant exactly what I felt. And I could never find them … When I had a feeling like sadness, I couldn’t find a word that meant everything that I felt inside of me. I always felt that words were inadequate, that I’d never been able to express myself—ever. Even now, it’s so hard to express what I think and feel, the totality of what I’ve seen. But this loneliness is the impetus for writing.”
In other words: articulating these universal experiences is a way of combatting existential loneliness, for both the writer and the reader. Anyone who’s truly loved a book knows how it can shrink the numbing distance between us. But it’s more than that. The attempt to speak where there’d been silence, or name a thing that had no name, is inherently political—is revolutionary—because, in very real ways, it expands boundaries: first of what can be said, and then of what can be done, and finally of what is possible.
Writing transforms us internally as well. I’ve heard so many writers describe their process as a delicate balancing act, a way to link the conscious, daytime self to the twilight world of the subconscious. I think that’s why Andre Dubus III, Richard Bausch, Celeste Ng, Hannah Tinti, Ben Marcus, and Eileen Myles—to name a few—described their work to me using the language of dreams. As in dreams, writing feels like an experience where we are not fully in control. And, like dreams, writing has a way of cracking open what has become brittle with certainty. From the fissure flows ideas and identities that are pliable, fluid, deep.
That experience is what allows someone like Roxane Gay—under the influence of Zadie Smith’s NW—to describe writing as a form of drag, a way to assume varied and contradictory postures, acknowledging if not quite reconciling the many voices we contain within us.
“Fiction can allow us brief residence in the land of true ambiguity, where we really don’t know what the hell to think,” George Saunders told me. “We can’t stay there very long. It’s not in our nature. You can be truly confused by something and then ten minutes later you’re grasping for your opinions like somebody going for a life jacket. But that brief exposure to the land of ambiguity is really, really good for us. To be genuinely confused about something for even a few seconds is good because it opens us up to the idea that what we know right now is not complete.”
Fundamentalism, evangelism, and moral absolutism have led human beings to trouble in all eras, and in ours, but the act of writing tends to remind us of the muddledness of things. The act of writing restores our admiration for the complexity and mystery we call beauty. We are creatures who harden into habit, into dogma, and yet something about this process encourages us to remember how to be surprised.
We are at the dawn of the Anthropocene, a man-made era in which humanity’s appetites are transforming—when they’re not all-out ravaging—the world. Our overconsumption, our collective hunger, is literally being written into the landscape, and into the sea and sky, in increasingly alarming ways. But literature is a way to opt out, if only briefly. The writing person, like the reading person, consumes almost nothing. It’s a way to temporarily drop our ties to troubling, depleting systems of production. A person who writes longhand in a notebook, as many writers tell me they do, is not making corporations stronger by shopping, or viewing advertisements, or using social media. They’re not even burning fossil fuels. This ability to render oneself essentially harmless—even for an hour—is rare, and radical, in our tangled age.
I think that’s part of what’s hard about writing, too. Unthinkable amounts of money are spent every day to engage the part of us that unceasingly wants—wants not just food and shelter, sex and security, power and status, but information, novelty, and connectedness. We are assailed at all turns by cravings; we are pulled in every direction by our desires. As twenty-first-century first-world humans, our first act in the morning is to check our phones—the nineteenth-century word we use to familiarize the glowing portals we carry with us, windowpanes we caress until they show us what we want. But writing, by necessity, means saying no to all of that. It’s an activity that must be monotasked—there is no other way to do it. And so it reminds us how it felt to do only one thing.
I think of the angels of the Paradiso, who when asked by Dante for the secret of their happiness, say: “We long for what we have.” Writing is a commitment to longing for what you have—an hour to kill, the pen, the paper, the mind’s low whirr—and no more. Stephen King once said, “When you write, don’t do anything but go to the bathroom.”
The essayist Melissa Febos told me that she tries to approaches everything she does with the same determined single-mindedness she practices in order to write. She urges us to consolidate the energy we might spend distractedly wanting or worrying and instead “relocate it, use it on some task that we really believe in,” she told me. “On our artwork, on our activism, on our parenting, on loving people as fully as we can. Oh my God, we should all hope for such economy of energy. We could do so much. We could solve so much.”
There are many reasons to write, but only one way to do so: single-mindedly, with complete focus on the task at hand. If our work accomplishes nothing else, that rigorous mode of attention serves as a kind of training, a boot camp for the soul. When you rise from your desk again, the day’s work done, remember how it felt to give yourself fully. As you love the people you care for, as you fight for the world you want—remember. You can do those things, too, with the whole self. Don’t settle for anything else.
Joe Fassler is a writer, editor, and musician based in New York. Since 2013, he’s asked writers about their creative lives for The Atlantic’s By Heart series, now collected with new essays in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.
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