Last weekend, I gave a brief talk to the North Idaho Writers League at the library in Sandpoint, Idaho. It was informal, a part of their regular meeting. I’d been asked to speak about my “journey” as a writer, but we focused almost exclusively on my experiences self-publishing and marketing my book. When it became clear that I do not make a living by my writing, one of the members asked, “So why do you write? Really.”
My marketing slogan, if you will, is “telling the stories of ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges.” But I knew he wanted something more than a stock answer. And, I realized as I thought about it, I did too. So why do I write, really?
Because I’m tired of the news
Like fiction, the news thrives on conflict. I’ve got nothing against stories that are chock-full of conflict; I love reading them and I love writing them. The news, though, stops with the conflict, seldom showing the resolution to the conflict. Sure, now and then a “feel-good” story gets coverage: heart-warming bits, a cancer cured, a family reunited after a tornado, a lost puppy found.
My years as a psychotherapist woke me up to something: The world of real human suffering is also a world of resolutions. The endings might not always be happy, but they can nevertheless be fulfilling. Through their pain, people do find new dimensions of themselves and new pathways in life, and often they find each other as well. Those endings, though they’re at the heart of everyday lived experience, seldom make the news. I’m tired of being told about tragedies and corruption and human folly and being left there, with nothing but a sour taste in my soul.
That’s one reason I write the fiction I write—to show that real suffering, real conflict, does not always and only end in defeat. Because, in real life, it often doesn’t.
Because John Donne was right
It’s easy–and wrong–to imagine that people enduring serious conflict or suffering are alone in it, and imagining that they are not like the rest of us is an easy dodge. It’s not just schadenfreude. Trouble, pain, and suffering are abhorrent; it’s only human to use cognitive tricks to convince ourselves that we’re safe from them. And when trouble does strike, isn’t it common to think it’s an aberration, that it’s not natural? That’s why when illness or trouble happens, people often ask, “Why me?” As if conflict and woe were somehow not normal, not inevitable in everyone’s life.
It’s not so. Michele, receiving news of cancer, didn’t ask that. She asked, “Why not me?” In asking that, she captured the spirit of John Donne’s famous lines from his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, number 17 (please remember that he wrote these words in the year 1624, so pardon the odd punctuation and the sexism):
No Man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a Clod be washed away by the Sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a Promontory were, as well as if a Manor of thy friends, or of thine own were; Any Man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
Because community matters
I write stories to set myself against that myth that sufferers and suffering are abnormal, isolated from other people. I want my fiction to suggest that we are all part of a community. We may be “clods,” but we remain a “piece of the Continent, a part of the main,” and if one of us suffers, to some perhaps mysterious extent, we all suffer. This is a consoling part of the Buddha’s First Noble Truth–all life is suffering.
A first corollary of this is that some sort of community, gathering itself around the sufferer, brings the energies of resolution. If it’s true that we don’t experience conflict alone (although it may feel like we do), we don’t recover alone, either. A second corollary is that if a sufferer’s relevant community withholds its energies, the sufferer cannot recover.
My neighbor, Larry Keith, alerted me to this dimension of community in my fiction. He’d just read Climbing the Coliseum and we were talking about it over coffee. It’s fitting, I suppose, that he and I live in a town named Hope, which is (with East Hope, just across the road) a community of around 300 people. People in Hope (and East Hope) help each other all the time. One day after Michele had surgery and couldn’t get around on her own, I had to leave for the afternoon. Three women came over and stayed with her while I was away. Community. I hadn’t noticed it myself, but the minute Larry pointed it out, I knew he was right: my book is not just about “ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges,” it’s also a story of a community of people whose involvement with those “ordinary people” is what helps them through their “extraordinary challenges.”
Though I wasn’t conscious of it until Larry remarked on it, I write to capture that fact of our embeddedness in community, that we are not islands, entire of ourselves.