Just got off the phone with my writers’ group of colleagues I met and recruited from Bread Loaf 2017. Great, smart, funny people, all of whom write for different reasons. And I think those reasons aren’t often enough explored. Why DO we do this crazy thing? What are we trying to advance through having chosen this particular expression?
In his terrific book The Academic Self: An Owner’s Manual, the English professor Donald Hall (not that one, the other one) urges academics to write an annual statement of professional purpose. He claims that it helps him prioritize his time, to be productive on the things that matter while letting lesser concerns fall away. So what would our statements of professional purpose look like? Here’s mine.
I write for hope. I write stories that offer alternative endings to problems that I’ve seen, or faced, or worried about. I write stories of people who are doing well enough, but have this aching sense that somehow there could be more. I believe that there can be more. I believe that we can all be more generous than we are today, and that the act of generosity opens doors to the possibilities of others.
I write for pleasure. I write stories that are fun to read, that gallop along, that take us from one location to another and arrive securely, wheeled up to the gate so that the readers can safely disembark after their adventure. I write amusement park rides, the exhilaration heightened by the knowledge that we will safely come back in.
I write because characters make me do it. I write to release the angel from the stone, to have the marionette become animated and self-aware. I write in order to lose control, to have a place and a community become so vivid that I can only report on it, can make no further decisions except to frame their lives in the clearest possible way. I write about people I admire, and I want others to admire them as well—not because they are perfect, but because they want so badly to be good.
I write because men are not asked to come to terms with our emotional lives. To borrow from Susan Faludi, men are asked to be isolated, stoic competitors. Any attempt to step beyond those roles is met with derision. I write because I think that the admonition to “man up” should lead to a complex array of possibilities rather than a closure back down to the one we know best. So I write of men who attempt to do manhood differently.
I write to be read. Not to advance the cause of literature, which will do fine without me. Not to move the trajectory of the novel, nor to hearken back to one or another tradition. I write for the same reason that I have people over for dinner and make interesting drinks: so that my friends and I will have a rich and enjoyable evening of conversation. And that is enough.
Even these five paragraphs contain internal contradiction, as we all do. As Whitman says, “I contain multitudes.” But they’re a pretty reliable guide to me for the stories that are worth months of my creative time.
Your manifesto would be different than mine, as it should. But I think it’s a worthy exercise. What is your guide? What would your manifesto look like?