The act of writing is an act of optimism. You would not take the trouble to do it if you felt it didn't matter.
- Edward Albee
But what about those times when hope fails? When you feel that it really doesn’t matter?
If you’re a writer and you’ve lived a bit, you’ve sunk into this hole of despair, at some point where your supply of hopeful optimism – a vital fuel for the completion of any work – has dried up.
Maybe you’ve had one too many rejections. Maybe you’ve been published or produced, and badly reviewed. Maybe you’ve been read and horribly misinterpreted, or worse, you’ve been ignored. The world has any number of ways to beat you down and defeat you, and sometimes you are your work’s worst enemy. You feel you’ll never master the craft, let alone make a decent living at it; you’re a craft-master who’s lived off it but fear you can’t do it again, or have nothing left to say.
The myriad reasons not to write can be overpowering. After all, we’re living at a time when the ever-increasing amount of extant writing – be it the latest 1,000-page biography or deluge of 140-character tweets – can make the decision to remove your voice from the din seem an act of social generosity.
My own answer to the question “Why write?” came to me unbidden, in the form of an e-mail from a screenwriter-director who lives abroad.
A few years ago, Gina, a fan of Writing the Romantic Comedy, had approached me for a consult. We worked together on a draft of her project via Skype, then on a subsequent rewrite, and we’d been sporadically in touch as she tried to get the movie set up. Her e-mail had a newly revised draft attached, but another consult was not her only purpose in contacting me.
Some months previous, I’d posted on this blog a long, serialized piece called “Death and Resurrection: A Rom-Com Memoir of the 2000s” – an attempt to compare and contrast on-screen romance with what I’d gone through in my own romantic life during that decade. In one of the posts, I wrote about the unraveling of my second marriage, due in part to our inability to have children.
In her e-mail, Gina quoted a passage where I wrote of how my Roman-Catholic wife’s conviction that “We will have a child if God wants us to” quashed my hopes of using any more scientific means to that end and ultimately, sadly, helped hasten the end of our marriage. Gina explained that she was in a similar situation.
She’d been married for six years to a loving husband, and her happily-ever-after true life rom-com portrait bore only one stain. While both Gina and her husband wished for a child, she was getting more and more impatient as the years went by. Yet her husband wasn’t at all worried, strongly believing that “it will happen when it is supposed to.” He wouldn’t have opposed a medical approach, Gina explained – if he had, she would have insisted – but this unresolved issue was threatening her happiness.
Gina said: What you wrote had such a strong impact on me that I decided to break the psychological pattern of frustration in my head before it would start to harm my marriage. She told me that she had tried some minor hormone treatment, and it had worked immediately. Husband and family were overjoyed about “the miracle,” and in the spring, she announced, she would have a baby boy.
I’ve just had another look at the baby pictures she sent me a few weeks ago. The kid is wide-eyed, properly pudgy, and adorable. And in the shots that feature Gina and husband, both are radiantly beaming.
So here’s the thing: When I set out to write that “Death and Resurrection” essay, it never would have occurred to me that posting it online would lead to my becoming a cyber-godfather. The piece, which was a bear to write, felt at times to me like an elaborate navel-gaze, and it never achieved its ostensible goal. I’d meant it to become the opening chapter of a non-fiction book about romantic comedy in the 21st century, and after I’d put some 18 months of labor into that book proposal, it was definitively rejected by my own agent.
I remember bitterly referring to all that work as a huge waste of time. The essay as originally posted online mustered only a few readers’ comments, and I would have gone on thinking about this now-painful writing investment as pure folly, if Gina’s e-mail hadn’t hit me in the heart and head and knocked me into a more profound perspective.
When I think on it, I can recognize many people who’ve had an impact on my life who in many cases haven’t the slightest inkling of their effect. So it shouldn’t be surprising, really, to find myself identified as one more influential human strand in that infinite web of connections. In this sense, worrying about whether or not the work I love to do is worth doing is a useless, foolhardy pursuit.
You never know. You can’t know, and it isn’t even your job to think about it. Our job as writers is to do the work – to try and express what we’re given to express, as honestly as we’re able, with as much skill as we can muster. If we succeed in that, and put what we’ve written out into the world, that is the work that matters, and anything that follows from it is assuredly beyond our ken and our control.
I’m pretty sure Gina’s son would agree.