Why Not? In Pursuit of the Picture

The question of “why” interests me less and less these days. “Why’s that?” inquisitive/cheeky readers might ask, and to be honest, I don’t know and I’m not terribly interested in knowing.

In his essay “Topic of Cancer,” which would become part of his book Mortality, Christopher Hitchens observes that just before finding out he had terminal cancer, he earned “million-miler” status with United Airlines and consequently “a lifetime of free upgrades.” While many people would deem that ironic, he doesn’t “see any ironies here”:

Would it be less poignant to get cancer on the day that . . . I was bounced from a coach-class flight and left on the tarmac? To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?

Irony, in the way he’s using it, would imply a grand scheme, an existential system wherein he somehow merited esophageal cancer. But he’s not going to go there. He understands that life isn’t that cruel. He didn’t earn cancer like he earned his million-miler upgrades. Lots of people get cancer–why not him?


Ross asks an age-old question.

The query of “why” is often posed in writing workshops: Why does character X do Y? Why is the narrator telling this story? The workshop conversation can begin to resemble a police procedural in which the question of motive appears again and again, which on the surface may seem to be in service to the craft, but–I suspect–has just as much to do with writers’ hopes that a story or essay with clear logic will render life more comprehensible.

(At the risk of alienating all writers, I hazard the claim that prose writers are more concerned with “why” than are poets. At the risk of alienating primarily prose writers, I hazard that this is because poets are smarter. And, yes, this latter declaration risks alienating integrity-obsessed readers who recall my earlier assertion about being little interested in “why.”)

Among the one-liners rattling about my brain is this: “What I have been after all along is not an explanation but a picture.” From Annie Dillard’s classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, this sentence shook me when I first read it and has multiple times since. It embodies her wisdom: The writer’s task is to see–not to rationalize or elucidate, but to see. In another chapter of Pilgrim, she says, “What I call innocence is the spirit’s unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object. It is at once a receptiveness and total concentration.” While seeing is often equated to maturity and cynicism, to Dillard it is innocence. It is beauty. It is devotion, attention, prayer.

I have a habit of turning to Dillard–as is evidenced by a previous post–because she can see like few writers I’ve read. And seeing is itself so demanding I don’t think I can do much more, as a reader or writer. I can’t answer the “whys” or even muster the energy to ask them. As fascinating as psychology and philosophy are, they can get in the way of living–and in the way of a good writing session.

My watery writing directive is this: Don’t allow the “why” to stall you. Don’t let it delay the shaping of a scene, the description of a character, the momentum of exposition. Focus on the scene, the character, the idea, without stumbling over sense. If some well-meaning reader of your draft asks “Why Z?” reply “Why not Z?” If the reader then muses, “But everything happens for a reason,” pick up your laptop and move to another room. Or, if using a desktop, pick up the reader and move them to another room.

To look past the thing to the question of motive or impetus is to reject the writer’s most essential function and to take upon oneself a burden that, especially in early drafting stages, the literary writer has no need to bear. Focus first. Focus with such ferocity you become innocent. The universe is neither kind nor cruel. It doesn’t coddle or condemn. To face what we are and where we are is itself the struggle.

When to Write What Consumes Us (And Why Josh Chan Should Keep Singing)

I was a teenager when I learned that writing “in the heat of the moment” ends badly. For example, if in the middle of a lousy afternoon, I wrote a poem about my lousy afternoon, the poem turned out lousier than the afternoon. As another example, in an episode of the musical comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend the character Josh Chan becomes so jealous of his two friends’ romance that, at his dojo, he bursts into impassioned song:

“Angry! Feeling . . . bad!” he grunts more than sings. His emotions are raw, and as a result he struggles to be coherent. He doesn’t have what a writing workshop might call “temporal distance”–he’s too close to the situation to be able to see it and reflect on it with any kind of grace. If he sang/grunted about it later (maybe the next day, maybe months or years after the fact), he’d have the distance needed to create something eloquent and worthwhile. That’s what some people–me included–might say anyway.

But since I’m an essayist who uses writing to thrash about in muddy contradictions, I’ll include a quote from Annie Dillard’s book The Writing Life:

One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for . . . later . . . give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

This passage (and, yes, do read the whole book) says adamantly not to wait, not to indulge in temporal distance, that if we feel the urge to express something, we should do so and do it now. Or does it say that? Dillard declares, “[T]he impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is . . . shameful” (emphasis supplied). Maybe this means that we must reach a place of wisdom about a subject before trying to tackle it.

Image result for the writing lifeBut I argue with that. Waiting to write until we feel confident in our wisdom is like waiting to live until we’ve figured out how not to mess up. It’s the same logic commitment-phobes use to avoid serious relationships–“What if it doesn’t work out?” becomes the reason never to work.

Thus, the pickle is this: If we should write about what consumes us, but we should also have something to say about it that’s more enlightened than “Angry! Feeling . . . bad!,” how do we proceed? In another section of The Writing Life Dillard poses an illuminating Q&A:

“Who will teach me to write?” . . .

The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut . . . that page will teach you to write.

These two Dillard excerpts in tandem suggest that (1) we must write about the thing that consumes us, (2) this writing must become wise, and (3) only the act of writing will empower us to accomplish (1) and (2). Put differently, Josh Chan can (should!) sing, “Angry! Feeling . . . bad!”–and he’ll have to keep singing to find his way to the real story.

As a teenager I learned that writing “in the heat of the moment” ends badly. As an adult I’m discovering that I should write despite that–heat is energy, after all–and I have to keep writing out of the original moment into other moments. As I draft and revise, the initial heat will transform into a stronger, more potent heat, a heat that dwarfs the disappointment, shame, ache, rage, or obsession that first goaded me.

So, this March and onward, write the tsunami in your head, the thing you dream and rant of, the thing you pen notes about on your hand and forearm, the hot thing that singes every article, book, TV episode, conversation. Write it in dumb words and broken sentences. As you write you will gain temporal perspective and build something that others need to hear–the page, the page will show the way.


Saturday Afternoon Inspiration

Happy Saturday, folks.  Here in Merced-land, we are laying down laminate floors and jamming to music.  It’s a busy day, but thanks to my commitment to you, I’ll still put words to the page by the end of the night and hope that, no matter what YOU are doing, you’ll do the same, too!

Today, I thought I’d leave words of wisdom to the wise.  Here are 13 inspiring quotes stolen from HERE and HERE and HERE.  Find the one that inspires you, and write it on a post-it.  Leave it somewhere on your desk to remind you as you go.


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