Why do I do this?
I had a bout of insomnia last night; the kind that wakes you up at 3:30 in the morning with the thought, “I’m wasting my life.” I spend my time: on life, first — eating and sleeping and walking and bathing and talking and hugging, petting, kissing; on work, second — teaching and planning and correcting and meeting and sighing, muttering, cursing; and then: I write. I read. I play video games. Those last three, the smallest overall category or my hours, are in ascending order of time spent per day: and that’s what drove me out of sleep and out of bed, to cause anxiety to my poor semi-high-strung dog and crankiness with my students. The thought that I spend more time crushing candy and thefting grand autos than I do either reading or writing. Surely that is madness, I thought then. Surely this is an apocalyptic doom! It is the end! It is all for naught! I SPEND TIME PLAYING VIDEO GAMES!
With a little more sleep, a lot of coffee, and some perspective kindly provided by my brilliant artist of a wife, I realized: no, that’s just cause for some slight readjustment, a little more time spent reading, a little less time in front of a computer screen. I have already taken a good step with my writing with my resolution to write every day, which I have kept up with, so far — and which has me writing this even as I try to gulp my morning cereal and whistle back to Duncan the cockatiel, who wants attention.
But there was another question which came into my night-fevered brain: should I be doing this at all? Am I, in any way and by any reckoning, doing the right things with my life?
Should I be a teacher?
Should I be a writer?
To answer those, I have to answer the question posed at the very beginning: why do I do this? Why do I teach? Why do I write?
The first one’s pretty easy, really: I need a job, both for money and peace of mind; I want to do my job well; I teach well. If there is another job I can do as well and earn either more money or more peace of mind, I would rather be doing that; I haven’t found it yet. (I am looking.) I think I would rather spend all of my time working on writing, but in today’s society and with my particular situation, that isn’t possible. Not yet. I want to try.
But that leads back to the second question, which is more difficult. Why am I a writer?
If it’s the same reason — I do it well and it brings me some peace of mind — then that doesn’t seem enough. Because isn’t it then as exchangeable as teaching is to me? If I find some other artistic endeavor that I do as well and which makes me happy, should I switch to that? I suppose the answer to that is, I have tried: I carve wood; I sing and perform; I tried both acting and dance when I was younger. Nothing spoke to me. I like singing, I like woodcarving (Don’t like acting or dancing, really), but they don’t burn in me the same way as this does: I need to find the right word to complete — finish? — this sentence. I need to. I should stop and continue on with my morning, but I want to get these thoughts down, first. If it were guitar strings under my fingertips, I already would have stopped.
So there’s something more to writing than to other things, for me. That’s why I do it.
Is that all? More importantly: is that enough?
No: those aren’t the questions. The question is still: why?
Why do I do this? Why do I keep coming back to it? I’m closer to 41 than I am to 40, and I am entirely unpublished except for what I have self-published, and that didn’t sell well. (I suppose my blogs have earned some response, since they nearly got me fired and all, and people seem to be reading this. Which I do appreciate, by the way: very much. Which point I will get to.) I keep coming back to writing; I have given up on everything else — quit dancing, quit acting, quit singing in public; there are songs I have never finished learning and books I have put down or given away unread, video games I have discarded unwon; and there are units I have stopped teaching, sometimes right in the middle, if the students were uninspired and I was uninspiring. But writing, I just keep on doing it. I have a need that writing fulfills.
And I think I know what it is.
Writing allows me to explain why. My idea of why, at least.
This is the question, for me. It’s the only one that matters. How has some purpose to it, of course; but knowing how is just a shortcut, and can generally be supplanted by knowing someone else who knows how; this is why I do not cook well, and cannot fix my own car. If I had to do things for myself, I could take the time to learn. So how doesn’t make or break me. As for what, who, when, where, I am interested in all of them; I like learning things, I like knowing things. But I don’t burn to know something that nobody else knows, so I’m not compelled to discover.
No: I want to know why. I want to understand. Ask my students: I have been known to ask Why until they want to tear out their hair — or maybe mine — and run screaming from the room. I am endlessly fascinated by the complexities of the human psyche, both individually and en masse; this is why I am interested in both politics and, to some extent, popular culture, though with a lot of popular culture, my own differing tastes lead me to a certain amount of contempt for my fellow man. Actually, that’s true with politics, too. I also want to know why the world is the way it is, and so I enjoy learning the science that gives explanations, such as biology or ecology. I am less interested in the mechanistic sciences, your physics, your chemistry, your engineering; I feel like those are mostly How answers. Which, again, are good, but not as good as Why.
Why is literature. History, too, but literature has infinite possibilities, which history does not; history has the advantage of being grounded in observable reality, but I don’t really care about that; philosophy has given me the opportunity to question even basic empirical facts (Thank you, M. Descartes), and so anything I dream could be as real as anything you’ve seen. (Here’s one of my favorite ones, which I throw at my students at least once a year: according to legend, when one is dying, one’s life flashes before one’s eyes; we know from dreams that this sort of mental cinema can happen at a much faster pace than genuine experience — a dream that lasts but moments of sleeping time can feel much longer. What if, as the body is slowing down, that recapitulation of every experience grows more and more detailed, the closer one approaches that final limit of life, until at the last moment, it feels as though one is experiencing it directly, instead of in memory? What if that’s where you are right now?) And there are things I can dream that nobody has ever seen.
So literature is the thing. Literature allows for hypothetical situations, vicarious experiences, imagined responses; and those things can tell us why. That’s why I write. I want to try to offer a possible explanation for — well, everything. For life (I have a book idea that will offer my concept of what a divine creation would actually look like), for good and for evil (Two of my completed novels have good characters; the third is an evil protagonist; all of them struggle with understanding why they are the way they are — and through those struggles offer my ideas about these questions), for politics and history and art and — anything I think I can explain, down to why pirates are better than ninjas and why Megan Fox is an idiot.
I wonder, writing this, if the key to my being a writer is simply arrogance: I think I’m right all the time. And there’s some truth there; it’s probably also why I am a teacher, in part, because I like being the guy with the answers, I like being the authority. But that isn’t entirely true, because I am not afraid of being proved wrong in class, and I don’t believe my books are the greatest; nor are my truths. I suppose that literature also allows me to offer possible explanations without knowing them for fact, which the fact-based endeavors don’t have as much freedom for. I do think my explanations are at least plausible; and if not plausible, interesting.
And that’s enough.
It’ll have to be enough. I have to go feed the dog.
But I’ll come back.
And as a postscript, let me thank you, any of you, who read what I write, and keep coming back to read more. Explanations without someone to listen to them are — well, not pointless, because they help me to figure out what I think and what I believe; but without readers, writing is fairly empty as an endeavor. So it means quite a lot to me that, even though I can’t get a literary agent to even read what I write beyond scanning a query and sending back a form rejection, somewhere people are listening to me. Let me ask you (Please respond in the comment section): why?