WHY I WRITE ~ Alan Shapiro
**Essay provided by author; however, originally published in the Cincinnati Re and reprinted in Best American Essays 2007 .**
Some years ago, I went to a child psychologist—if Henny Youngman had written this opening sentence, he would have added: “The Kid didn’t do a thing for me.” But I digress. The child psychologist I went to had recently tested one of my children for ADD. When the results came back positive, he called me and my not-yet-ex-wife to suggest that we be tested too. There may be a genetic component to ADD, he said, and taking the test would not only reveal the extent to which we ourselves suffered from this condition; it would also enable us to better understand our child.
So we took the test. Turns out it’s the only test I ever aced. As the doctor put it, in my case the results were salient.
“So, I’m ADD.” I said. “What does that mean?”
“Well,” he said, “according to the test, your ADD manifests itself in three ways: you have trouble starting tasks. You have trouble staying on task. And you have trouble finishing tasks.”
“That pretty much covers it.” I said. “But how do you explain the fact that I’ve written a number of books, and even today I spent several hours puzzling over a single sentence in a translation I’m doing of a Greek tragedy.”
He said that it’s not that people with ADD can’t concentrate on things they want to do, it’s that they lack any ability to concentrate on anything that bores them. People with ADD have no tolerance for boredom. When I pointed out that I’d been teaching for over twenty five years and seldom read a student paper that didn’t make me want to drive an ice pick through my skull just to relieve the boredom but that I nonetheless returned each and every student paper in a timely fashion (even the ones I bothered to read—just kidding!), my soon to be ex-wife interjected: “But Alan, you can’t remember the name of anyone you meet at a party.”
“Sweetheart,” I said, “That’s called a greeting disorder.”
“And,” she continued, “even if I give you a list of groceries you come home with the wrong things, red peppers instead of tomatoes, bananas instead of squash.”
“That’s called being a guy,” I said.
“And you don’t hear five per cent of what I tell you.”
“That’s called marriage.” She wasn’t amused.
Sensing the tension, the doctor asked, “So what do you think you want to do about this? How do we proceed?”
“With the ADD or with the marriage?”
Now it was his turn not to be amused. He went on to describe the kinds of medication I could take but then said he wasn’t suggesting I do anything if I didn’t think I was a problem to myself. “People who grew up before this condition was named or treated have often found ingenious ways to compensate for their disabilities. Writing for me, he said, was a prime example of what he called compensatory behavior.
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “I write books in order to make up for my inability to remember the names of the people I meet at a party, or because I come home from the grocery store with a red pepper instead of a tomato?”
“Well not exactly,” he said but before he could explain exactly what he meant, the hour was up.
I don’t know, maybe I was a tad defensive with the psychologist–you think?– and even a little miffed by his reduction of the art I love and have devoted my life to for the better part of almost forty years to a side effect of a neurological condition. At the same time, telling the story over I can’t help but ask myself, “Why do I write?” Is writing a compensation for psychological, emotional or even neurological deficits? Do we write, as the old saying goes, because we can’t do? Is art, as Freud believed, a kind of socially acceptable wish fulfillment for asocial infantile desires? A way of finding in imagination what we lost in life? A sublimation of sexual energy? A way of transmuting our hidden wishes or shameful secrets, our failures and losses and humiliations into beautiful objects that win us wealth and admiration and all the sexual fulfillment that we put off in order to do the work in the first place? Why else get into the poetry racket? That I could even ask this question, even in jest, much less attempt to make my way in the world by writing poetry is yet another manifestation of an abiding suspicion I’ve had for many years now that god put me on earth to disprove the stereotype that all Jews make money.
I once asked a very talented student of mine why she wanted to become a writer. Fame, she said. I want to be famous. And what did fame mean to her? It meant being able to check into the penthouse suite of a five star hotel and totally trash the room and then be loved for it. This quintessentially American celebrity-driven fantasy is just the self-indulgent flip side of an older, time honored messianic fantasy of the writer as unacknowledged cultural legislator. Seamus Heaney has written that poetry or great writing of any kind provides a culture with images adequate to its predicament. Who hasn’t dreamed of providing everyone with images adequate to their predicament and being loved for it, and maybe even given loads of cash? When we’re in our teens and early twenties, maybe we all dream of becoming celebrated shamans of the heart, but that adolescent daydream doesn’t begin to explain why we continue writing after the age of 25 or 30, once we realize that the world isn’t exactly rushing out to take its marching orders from anything we’ve written.
I think of my dear friend Tim Dekin, a wonderful poet, who died a few years ago at the age of 58 of pulmonary fibrosis. Tim’s first full-length book, Another Day on Earth, was published posthumously in 2002 by TriQuarterly Books. Tim and I met at Stanford in 1975. Eventually, we both ended up teaching in the Chicago area. He was a brilliant talker, a fabulous poet, and a very funny man who lost many years of his writing life to alcoholism. He held down a series of demanding low paying jobs teaching freshmen comp at various universities. After years of struggling unsuccessfully to find a publisher for his poetry, he wrote three very good novels that he likewise couldn’t publish. In his last year of life, he returned to his first love, poetry, and finished his magnificent one book. Tethered to his oxygen machine, he drove from Chicago to Chapel Hill not long before he died so he and I could go over his new poems and put the manuscript together. My brother had just died, and I had broken up with my wife and was living in a basement apartment. Neither Tim nor I were in very good shape at the time, physically or otherwise.
During that visit, I told Tim a joke that a musician friend of mine told me about the four stages in a musician’s career: The first stage is “Who is Richard Luby?” The second stage is “Get me Richard Luby.” The third stage is “Get me a young Richard Luby!” And the fourth stage is “Who is Richard Luby?” Tim laughed at the joke, then added ruefully, “I seemed to have passed from stage one to stage four without ever having passed through stages two and three.”
I cherish the memory of those few days with Tim, and I love the image of us in my dreary digs, Tim’s poems spread out on the coffee table, Tim puffing on the oxygen tube the way he puffed on the forbidden cigars he still occasionally smoked, leaning over the poems, reading out passages, discussing them, rewriting them, the two of us beset with troubles, physical and emotional, but working rapturously nonetheless throughout the day and long into the night. What exactly were we doing? What lack were we trying to fill? What were we compensating for? Whatever it was, fame and fortune had absolutely nothing to do with it.
Which is not to say I don’t desire fame and fortune. I do. I do. I’m not above them. In fact, I’m so far beneath them that I’d even happily forget fame if I could have just a little fortune. When I take a good hard look at the life I’ve chosen, I have to wonder how I’ve stuck it out as long as I have. For there’s a Grand Canyon’s worth of difference between the literary life I dreamed of as an adolescent and the life I found once I began to publish and actually live what passes for a literary life.
I remember thinking in my teens and early twenties that if I could only publish a poem in a magazine, any magazine, I’d feel fulfilled and validated and wildly happy. And then I got my first publication. And I was happy for a day or so, until the bill arrived for the printing cost, and then I thought if I could only get a poem into a real journal, into a magazine that pays, I’d feel validated and happy, and when that happened, I began to feel the need to publish in the Atlantic Monthly or the New Yorker, magazines that someone other than my fellow writers may have heard of, and eventually when that happened I believed that only publishing a book with a reputable press would make me feel as if I’d earned the right to call myself a poet. And then I published a book, and the resounding silence and inattention of the world (it’s my books that suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder, not me), made me feel that the only measure of my poetic worth would be to get a book reviewed somewhere by someone I didn’t know, someone who wasn’t related to me, and when that occurred, and pleased me and the pleasure passed, I thought that only winning a big book award could quell this anxiety about my literary worth. I didn’t realize how preoccupied I was with literary recognition till one day I overheard my seven year old son negotiating with my five year old daughter over who got to hold the TV’s remote control. He said, Izzy, if you give me the controller I’ll give you a Pulitzer Prize. I’ve been at this long enough to know that even if god himself, the lord almighty, hallowed be his name, came down from heaven and gave me a big fat kiss on the back of the brain, I’d probably shrug it off: “What? That’s it? For years you don’t write, you don’t call, and now all I get is a lousy kiss?”
Don’t get me wrong. Acclaim of any kind is wonderful, except when it goes to someone else. But even at its best, that sort of “reward” or “recognition” is like cotton candy: it looks ample enough until you put it in your mouth, then it evaporates. All taste, and no nourishment.
Then there’s the thrill of dealing with editors. By way of illustration, let me tell you a story. In 1976, before I’d published anything, I wrote a long windy poem called Fathers and Sons. I sent it to the journal Quarterly West. The editor sent the poem back with a note suggesting I rewrite the middle two sections and resubmit it. I knew from watching the editors of Sequoia, the Stanford literary journal, that all editors are overworked and underpaid and can’t possibly read everything that crosses their desk with keen attention. So I waited six months and sent the poem back unchanged with a letter thanking the editor for his suggestions, all of which I said I took. I even thanked him for his help and said that even if he didn’t accept the poem I was still in his debt for his suggestions had made the poem new to me again, and more like what I initially envisioned when I started writing it. Within days, I received a letter from the editor accepting the poem and commending me for my professionalism.
In 1997, in this very auditorium, I participated in an editor’s roundtable. At the time, I was the editor of the University of Chicago’s Phoenix Poets Series, and I told this story in order to make the point that writers need to treat what editors tell them with a healthy dose of skepticism. Don’t presume an editor is smart just because he or she is an editor. Editors should have to earn their authority by reading what you send them with intelligence and imagination, and that in any case they themselves, the writers, ought always to be the ultimate arbiters of what they do. Editors, I said, are mostly obstacles to get around. I returned to Bread Loaf two years later, and one of the students here stopped to thank me for my advice back in 1997. He said he followed it and it worked like a charm. What do you mean, I asked. What advice? “Well, I got a poem back from Boulevard, and the editor suggested I do a major rewrite. So I waited six months like you said and sent it back with a letter thanking him for his time and help, and he accepted the poem.” The moral of this story isn’t that editors are fools, though some are. The moral isn’t that you should all con your way into print, though if you do more power to you. Rather, the moral is you needn’t listen to everything an editor tells you. The moral is you need to be cynical about publishing in order not to be cynical about writing, in order to protect and preserve the deeply private joy of doing the work itself (I’ll say more about that private joy in a moment). I know it’s hard, sometimes impossible, to keep the po biz out of the poetry, to keep the anxieties and injustices of trying to publish from contaminating your own relationship to what you do. It’s hard to find the proper balance between the arrogance we need to keep on writing, the arrogance that assumes that we have something worth saying, and that we’re smart enough to learn what someone’s smart enough to teach us; and the humility we also need in order to grow and develop, the humility that knows that we cannot nurture and refine our gifts without the help of others, that other people including editors can sometimes tell us things we need to hear. Too much arrogance and not enough humility and we close ourselves off from the world, and nothing new comes in and we eventually become imitators of ourselves, turning what at one time were discoveries into mannerisms. And too much humility and not enough arrogance and we lose our center of gravity and find ourselves at the mercy of everyone else’s opinion. Striking the right balance between humility and arrogance is another exhausting and often frustrating aspect of the writing life.
And then there’s the frustration that surrounds the work itself, the work we’ve already done and the work we want to do. The dissatisfactions we often feel toward older work, not to mention the frustrations we often feel toward what we’re writing now as well as the anxieties we feel toward what we may do next, put me in mind of the old joke about the Jew who’s shipwrecked on a desert island. Twenty years later, he’s discovered, but before he leaves he wants to show his saviors the three synagogues he’s built: “Over there,” he says, “is the synagogue I used to go to. Over there’s the synagogue I go to now. And over there, that synagogue, I wouldn’t step foot in.” I know this is really a joke about class and status, and the need to feel superior to something. But I do think the more we refine our abilities, the more embarrassing our older work becomes. That is, if we’re truly lucky, we’ll despise our early work. If we’re lucky, we’ll feel as if nearly everything but what we’re writing now was written by someone else we’d rather not be seen in public with. And if we’re lucky, what we’re writing now won’t compare with what we’ll write ten years from now. That’s the price we pay for getting better. The problem is the better we get at writing, the better we get at imagining getting even better. So the discrepancy between the writer we are and the writer we want to be only widens as we improve. To flourish as an artist requires a tolerance for frustration, inadequacy and a deepening sense of failure.
And that’s the good news. Now let’s consider the effect of what we write on those we write about. Over the years, I learned the hard way that no one wants to give up narrative control over his or her life. Yet my theory’s always been that if I try to tell the truth, if I have no ax to grind and write about others in a spirit of forgiveness, curiosity and understanding, then no one should be upset by anything I say. Well, so much for theory. Even the most affectionate portrait of a loved one, the most intimate praise (never mind depictions of estrangement or disaffection) can and will offend. In 1996, I published a book of personal essays. My mother called to congratulate me. “Have you heard from anybody yet about the book?” She asked. “Only my shrink,” I joked. “He’s upset that I’ve gone public with stories I should have only shared with him. He’s threatening to sue me, Ma!” “That’s ridiculous,” she’s said, not joking, deadly serious. “If anyone’s going to sue you over this book it’s me.”
But even if we never write about our families, there’s still the often-painful fallout on our families from the dedication, time and solitude that the art requires. I don’t want to suggest, even for a moment, that artistic success depends on domestic instability, or that there’s any correlation between art and suffering. One doesn’t have to have a tortured soul to become a writer. Or rather our souls don’t have to be tortured any more than most people’s souls are tortured. Catastrophe or self-destructiveness is no prerequisite for the position. Nor need one be a drunk, a womanizer or a victim of abuse. If bad behavior or bad luck were essential ingredients of a writing life, our de-tox centers, prisons and twelve step programs would be full of writers. All one has to do to be a writer is to write. We’re writers only when we’re writing. Writing, in other words, is an activity, it’s something we do, and not something we are. When we’re not writing, each of us is just another poor slob trying to get through the day without hurting anyone too much. That said, let’s also recognize that many of us live within rather stringent economies of energy, and to do this is not to do that. With jobs, kids, relationships, it’s impossible to balance the competing claims of life and art without slighting one in favor of the other. I should add too that the muse is an especially demanding and jealous mistress, and most of us when we’re not writing wish we were. It may be that even if I were a shepherd or a proctologist, I’d be just as troubled as I’ve often been throughout my life, struggling to satisfy both my need to work and my need to love. Maybe, but I doubt it. The fact is, like most writers, I’ve been and continue to be monomaniacal about putting in my hours at the desk. And that dedication to work has sometimes proven lethal to my loves and friendships.
So the work itself always entails frustration and failure; it can damage our most intimate relationships; its public rewards are illusory at worst, fleeting at best. And if you write poetry, hardly anyone is listening. So why do it?
Elizabeth Bishop provides a possible answer in a famous letter to Anne Stevenson. Bishop writes that what we want from great art is the same thing necessary for its creation, and that is, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration. We write, Bishop implies, for the same reason we read or look at paintings or listen to music: for the total immersion of the experience, the narrowing and intensification of focus to the right here right now, the deep joy of bringing the entire soul to bear upon a single act of concentration. It is self-forgetful even if you are writing about the self because you yourself have disappeared into the pleasure of making, your identity, the incessant transient noisy New York Stock Exchange of desires and commitments, ambitions, hopes, hates, appetites and interests have been obliterated by the rapture of complete attentiveness. In that extended moment, opposites cohere: the mind feels and the heart thinks, and receptivity’s a form of fierce activity. Quotidian distinctions between mind and body, self and other, space and time, dissolve. Athletes know all about this nearly hallucinatory state. They call it being in the zone. They feel simultaneously out of body and at one with body. I also think that infants inhabit a rudimentary version of this state of being. When my children were babies, I would often awaken in the morning to the sound of my son or daughter babbling happily in the crib. They’d be talking but the meaning of the words were indistinguishable from the sensation of the sound, and the sound was part and parcel of the mouth that made the sound, of the hands and fingers that the mouth was sucking on as it sang. No matter how sophisticated our poems may be, or how deadly serious they are about eradicating or exposing the terrible injustices around us, I still think that we are trying, by means of words, of consciousness, to reawaken that preverbal joy, to repossess, re-inhabit what someone else has called the seriousness of a child at play. Bishop says this concentration’s useless because it is its own reward, the mysterious joy of it. It is singing for the sake of singing. And even if the singing pleases others or consoles them, stirs them to further the cause of justice in the world, or simply brings the parent to the crib with food, warmth and maybe a dry diaper, those effects and ramifications are nonetheless incidental to the primal fundamental urge to sing, to the sheer gaiety (to borrow a word from Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli”) of projecting our voices out into the ambient air.
Maybe it’s because I do have ADD and have always been a deeply and often painfully distracted human being, but my best days are the ones in which I sit down at the desk at 9 am, and look up to discover that it’s 3 pm, and that 6 hours have passed in a single moment. It doesn’t matter ultimately whether what I’ve written is any good or not. I always feel renewed and grateful if the material, whatever it is, induces that self-forgetful perfectly useless concentration. While I’m working I’m only working, nothing else exists. Inside and outside feel perfectly aligned, and throughout the full range of my faculties and sensibilities I’m entirely alert, entirely present, and this, for me, too rare experience of being there, wholly there, never fails to exhilarate. While it lasts, there’s no joy like it. And it never lasts long enough, or happens often enough to satisfy my yearning for it. Dickinson describes its passing as a “sumptuous destitution.” Wallace Stevens expresses the desperate longing to prolong this blessed state when he says in “Solitude Among Cataracts” that he wants to die in “a permanent realization.” The pleasure of that concentration is addictive, and it’s that addiction, I think, that accounts for the restlessness and melancholy many writers feel when they’re not writing. It’s not, as Berryman believed, that poets need to suffer in order to write; that misery produces art; it’s rather that that self-forgetful perfectly useless concentration makes them happy, is itself the happiness that may elude them or never come so purely or reliably in their non-writing lives.
In February of 2001, a month before Tim died, I flew to Chicago to spend a few last days with him. Tim was bed-ridden by then, his breathing labored, his consciousness a little compromised by lack of oxygen. One afternoon, Reg Gibbons, his good friend and editor at TriQuarterly Books, Reg’s wife Cornelia Spelman, and I were sitting around Tim’s bed, talking about poetry, as we almost always did. The subject of Tim’s forthcoming book came up. He had just seen a mock up of the cover, which consisted of a picture of Tim fly-fishing, one of his great passions and the subject of many of the poems in the book. Tim was happy with the cover, and hopeful that he’d be around when the book came out in the fall. I don’t remember who suggested this, but Reg and I began to take turns reading from the last poem in the book, a poem in four sections called “Woodmanship.” Tim by then was too weak to read out loud. His eyes were closed throughout the reading while his fingers tapped out the rhythm of the poem on the bed’s railing. Though fly-fishing is the occasion of the poem, the subject is really acceptance of mortality, failure and loss, and the value of joy in all its elusiveness. Reg got to read the magnificent final section in which the speaker fishes with a young boy he has befriended:
Early the next morning, I poach
In the Rod and Gun Club, the boy beside me,
In pitch black, making our way by starlight
And the cold flowing river.
We’re being careful of sheriffs with sidearms,
I tell him, though an expensive ticket’s about
The worst for getting caught these days.
In the preserve of the privileged, I whisper,
Honest men take small breaths to avoid
The smell of wasted, rotting game.
But poachers breathe
From the soles of their feet
The blue ribbon trout streams.
Now pine needles, now pungent, spongy sucking
Gives way to commotion: the slapping and thrashing
Of twenty-pound steelhead trout on the shallow gravel—
The bucks are biting each other’s tails,
The hens are heavy with roe.
My heart aches.
Then finally, the long, moon-shimmering slick
Coming down hard into a sucking whirlpool.
In my desire it is already light.
The boy fishes: a crisp, short, roll cast—
And a huge steelie takes the lure deep in the hole.
The trout jerks its massively-jawed head once,
Then twice, as if trying to shake off a nightmare.
The boy strikes sideways, downstream,
To set the hook firmly.
I wait, calm, observant, almost indifferent now,
But still the old feeling comes—
Well being. Delight being. Joy being.
The sun breaking,
Birch branch shiny with spilled light
(Is it black on white
or white on black?)
The only difference now my knowing enough not to think.
Go joy. Fly.
I don’t need you,
Which is why you’ve come,
My childhood’s earliest familiar,
Omnipresent except when desired.
Still, if you will, take bread at my hand
Like any unsuspecting creature of the forest,
Eat the trail of crumbs I left to find my way back.
An explosion goes off in the whirlpool:
Silver with a rosy pink underbelly,
Predatory, unsuspecting, all of creation
Caught in its exquisite contortions,
A steelhead leaps—
The burden of the past and the future lifting—
Two feet out of the water
And throws the hook.
I move up beside the boy to praise his effort;
I try to comfort his unfathomable loss.
The poem of course is also about writing, the moment of creation, when we forget all else but the task at hand, when preparation and luck coincide, when the burden of the past and the future lifts, and exhilaration comes, what Tim calls delight being, joy being, his childhood’s familiar. The poem, itself, he implies, the writing of it, is both the crumbs that lead us as adults back to that childhood paradise, and the measure of how far we’ve traveled from it. When the moment passes, and the poem’s written, and we rise from the desk to return to the world awaiting us, our tangled loves and commitments, the exhilaration is nearly indistinguishable from “unfathomable loss”.
Career-wise, Tim’s life was not a happy one. At the same time, in his last six years he remarried, had another child, and despite his worsening physical condition he did his finest writing. His life, in fact, contradicts the cliché that great art springs from misery. Illness and the terrors of dying certainly inform Tim’s rueful, funny, heart wrenching final poems, but so too do the joys of fatherhood, and marriage, and the deep pleasure of domestic peace. The poems, in fact, are inconceivable without them. Ill as he was, in his last years Tim had never been so happy, as a writer or a man.
Early and late, though, Tim’s only constant was his work, his poetry, the pleasure of sitting down to write each morning, and those marvelous days when hours would pass in what would feel like seconds. Through all the vagaries of love and loss, addiction, illness and recovery, he took delight in the work, and the delight and the surprise that found him as he wrote these final poems is now our delight and surprise as we read them. It was for that pleasure that he wrote. It was for that self-forgetful perfectly useless concentration that he kept on writing even when the world paid no attention. He didn’t write for fame, however much he may have longed for recognition and suffered keenly for the lack of it. He wrote for the sheer joy of the writing, which, as a writer, was his most durable sustenance. It was less than he deserved, but, lucky for us, it was enough to keep him going.