Ras posted here the other day with the question “Does Reading Novels Make You a Better Person?” My own question, considering how I’ve been spending my days lately, is “How About Writing a Novel? Does That Make You a Better Person?”
Nah. No way. The graveyards are full of novelists who were bastards, and unhappy bastards at that. My own feeling is that writing has its satisfactions (so does alcohol if you’re an alcoholic), but that if you’re inclined to be gloomy it will only make you gloomier. Most of the advice for depressives, or even for ordinary folks seeking a less unhappy life, is to focus on the world outside yourself. Think of others, do things for them, empathize. Stay busy with tasks that make you look outward. Yet writing, of all the tasks you may choose to pursue, is the one that insists you look inward. Inward’s where the bogeyman lives. Inward’s the haunted house. Inward is Poe country. So if you’re inclined toward morbid introversion, melancholia, existential despair, cognitive dissonance, or any other variety of that soul sickness called the blues, then of course writing’s bad for you. Very few serious writers go la-la-la-ing through their days . . . or their nights.
But let’s leave the issue of happiness aside—Ras wasn’t talking about happiness, anyway—and just focus on whether writing makes you more empathetic or easier to live with.
You’ll remember that Ras found some research to the effect that reading novels enhances one’s empathy and social skills. I dug up an old column by Rick Gekoski in the Guardian, entitled, “Writing is Bad for You.” He says that “reading is an uncertain basis for the building of character. I am less ambivalent about writing. My writing, anyway. It has become increasingly clear to me . . . that the more I write the worse I become.”
These days that business about “the more I write” is particularly relevant around our house, because I’ve finally started getting serious about this nascent novel of mine. And I have, indeed, come to find that the more I focus on my writing, the more impossible I become. I spend long weekends working at my West Virginia hideaway, but when I’m back home I can tell—vaguely, through the haze of my self-absorption—that I’m a jerk to live with.
What sort of symptoms are we talking about? Gekoski’s self-description applies perfectly to me: “More self-absorbed, less sensitive to the needs of others, less flexible, more determined to say what I have to say, when I want and how I want, if I could only be left alone to figure it out.”
Ouch. The “left alone” part is where the rub may be found. I love my loved ones, but they insist on living like real, corporeal humans—walking, talking, laughing, eating at the kitchen table, etc. I like their presence, but it’s their presence that makes it impossible for me to retreat into the kind of perpetual walking reverie that is required—at least, I require it—when working through a novel.
I mentioned, when I got going on this thing a few months ago, that writing a short story—populated by a few characters and running maybe 5,000 words—is what I’d call a project. But a novel? A novel is like living with a second family, and a secret one at that. It’s more than a project, it’s a way of life. And if you’re me—that is, someone whose ability to attend to more than one task at a time is practically nil even on good days—then attending to your real family while engrossed in an imaginary one is the very essence of stress.
Whose stress? Well, mine, natch. But theirs, too. I want to stay immersed in my creative ruminations; they want to live in their own home without getting barked at just for living. The only time everybody gets what they want is when I am away—reachable by phone, text, or e-mail, but unlikely to be bumped into in the bathroom.
Gekoski, who’s an essayist, says—
There is nothing unambiguously agreeable about this to my loved ones, nor to me either. It is embarrassing, being thus conquered by an inward voice desperate to formulate, reconsider, construct, deconstruct, seek out the right phrase, amend it, think again. And I am only a writer of bits of non-fiction. You’d think it would be easy. Or easier, certainly, than being a novelist. I can hardly imagine what it must be like to be inhabited by many competing voices, ceaselessly reconsidering the flow of a narrative, charting the development of character, juxtaposing one thing with another. It’s astonishing that novelists have any social life at all.
I gotta say, Gekoski sounds like me—though less whiny. As I write this, it’s Sunday afternoon and I’m alone at the cabin, staring out the window into the bleak wintry woods. Poe country. The sacrifices one makes for one’s art.
But now I gotta go. The NFC Championship game is starting.