We talked a bit yesterday about how wonderful it is to write, and how fraught it can be to have written. Today, I want to go back into that immersive space of writing, and talk more about how and why it matters.
Last week, I picked up Zadie Smith’s Intimations, a small collection of essays she’d already published as individual pieces (most in the London Review of Books). The essays are all dispatches from the early months of the pandemic times, and collectively, they do a marvelous job of reminding us just how emotionally dense this time is, and that it oughtn’t to be a surprise to any of us if we feel lost now and then.
Every so often, a piece of writing hits me so strongly that I feel compelled to type it out myself in order to understand it, to embody it, to have those ideas come through my own hands. One of Smith’s essays, “Something to Do,” meets that standard. Although I have the full text as a .docx file because I typed it, I’m not going to reproduce it in its entirety: she’s donating the proceeds of the book to COVID-related charities, so just go spend twelve bucks and buy the thing. But this essay really drives home the relationship I laid out yesterday… do we write a novel or make brownies?
If you make things, if you are an “artist” of whatever stripe, at some point you will be asked—or may ask yourself—“why” you act, sculpt, paint, whatever… the surest motivation I know, the one I feel deepest within myself, and which, when all is said, done, stripped away—as it is at the moment—seems to be at the truth of the matter for a lot of people, to wit: it’s something to do… Now I am gratified to find this most honest of phrases in everybody’s mouths all of a sudden, and in answer to almost every question. Why did you bake banana bread? It was something to do. Why did you make a fort in your living room? Well, it’s something to do. Why dress the dog as a cat? It’s something to do, isn’t it? Fills the time.
This sounds enormously nihilistic, laid out cold in the first paragraph of an essay, this notion that writing a novel is no different than dressing up the dog for an Instagram photo, that it’s merely a neutral choice of how to fill the empty minutes.
But then she works her way into an idea borrowed from another writer, Ottessa Moshfegh, who wrote “Without [love], life is just ‘doing time.” Smith then talks about the ways in which empty time takes on meaning when it is used to express and receive love, and the ways in which any of those choices we make about time can be made powerful and meaningful if they are used to indirectly create love.
Love is not something to do, but something to be experienced, and something to go through—that must be why it frightens so many of us and why we so often approach it indirectly. Here is this novel, made with love. Here is this banana bread, made with love. If it weren’t for this habit of indirection, of course, there would be no culture in this world, and very little meaningful pleasure for any of us. Although the most powerful art, it sometimes seems to me, is an experience and a going-through; it is love comprehended by, expressed and enacted through the artwork itself, and for this reason has perhaps been more frequently created by people who feel themselves to be completely alone in this world— and therefore wholly focused on the task at hand—than by those surrounded by “loved ones.”
When Nora and I spent three full days making cookies, and then another day driving them around town and dropping them off, it was clear that this was an act of love. That it was a way to say, to the 15 or so families who received them, that they were valued and recognized, and that we were grateful to have them in our lives. The cookies were a statement, a speech act, clear and fully recognized.
What about the novel?
I read an interview today with Rainbow Rowell, whose book Eleanor and Park is one of the most fully realized books I’ve read in ten years. And she talks about the experience of being an “overnight success,” but also how difficult it is for her that Eleanor and Park has become slotted as a YA novel. She’s delighted to have a teen audience, and yet…
But it still feels weird because sometimes I feel like people expect me to be thinking of my teen audience at every step, like I came to town and said, “I’m here to serve you, teenagers. What do you want?” I didn’t do that. I didn’t write Eleanor & Park thinking, What’s the best book I can write for a teenager? I just wrote it thinking, What book do I want to write?
What love does writing embody? To whom does it offer itself? Not to readers, that anonymous mass the writer will almost never meet nor hear from. No, I know my answer, and it won’t be popular, or broadly understood. But I’m committed to it.
Writing is, for me, an enactment of love for my characters. Those absolutely real, absolutely whole people who let me see their lives (and their obsessions and their shames and fears, too). I may not start there. I may start with an interesting intellectual question, an idea to explore, a setting that has come to mind. But before long—if I’m doing it right—I come to know, to understand, and to love the people I’m writing about. I write their lives because I admire their lives, because I believe that their lives deserve recognition. I feel the duty to bear witness to them, because I love them. They ought to be known. Ought to be seen.
In my writing book Slush, I liken my role as a writer to that of a designer creating a home for clients.
As a writer, I play the same role as the designer or builder of a home. I am not a member of the family who lives there, and cannot be. What I do is to facilitate the pleasures and the growth of that family, and to help them welcome friends to their table. I want them to be not merely comfortable, but to be loved, to be successful, to discover strengths they weren’t sure they could muster. I bear the same responsibility to my characters that I always imagined I would bear to the residents of the homes I might design. And what of the friends who visit? That would be the body of readers, unimaginable and ever changing, people invited and people who drop by. My goal, as a writer and as a designer, has been to allow the written family and their home to be so engaging that people want to stop by.
I have a whole philosophical thing about how fictional characters are real people, albeit within their own contexts, but that’s just me trying to understand my own complete conviction that Clay and Thanh and Camille deserve to be seen and loved. That Robert and Charles and Bess and Luther deserve to be seen and loved. That Svetlana deserves, after two decades of a safe and hollow marriage, to be seen and loved—if not by Dicky, then at least by us.
That’s all I have control over, in the end. I cannot manufacture readers. I cannot ensure that Svetlana’s life will be acknowledged by anyone beyond myself. But I owe it to her to make her such a full character that if she were introduced around, others would find her engaging. Would respect her, would enjoy their time with her. I have built homes for Svetlana and all the rest because I love them.
And there’s why the having written is such a challenge. I don’t care if you love me. But I want you to love Svetlana, and David and Gwen, and Tim and Nik, and so many others. And I have not fulfilled that responsibility once the book is over and the Word file is closed. I want them to be able to invite you over and tell you their stories. My work as the homebuilder is completed but not fully manifested until you sit at their kitchen table. Maybe with a brownie.