By Lisa Alber
Last week I happened to be listening to NPR as I drove my car back from Handy Andy’s, my neighborhood repair shop, when I realized something about myself. As one does, right? In the midst of the every day, in this case as I grumbled about the gift of a split radiator during the most expensive month of the year. The week before, copious amounts of white smoke had billowed out from under the hood right before an unusual snow fall for Portland, Oregon. I managed to get the car towed back to my house, and then I was stuck for nearly a week. Have you seen the horror movie “Cabin Fever?” Yeah, just about it.
Anyhow, so maybe it was having freedom at last, mixed with grumbliness, that readied my brain for a little epiphany. This has been a rough year on so many levels — many stressors (in addition to the political toxins) — and I found myself thinking:
Why do I write anyhow? What am I getting out of it? Is writing novels worth endangering my health and dealing with constant anxiety that I’m behind where I “should” be and could be doing more, more, more? Is writing novels worth not having a life as I try to get the writing done (and promotional stuff!) while working a full-time day job?
I have a friend who’s been writing novels for decades, and she’s said about the endeavor: “It’s heartbreaking.” Meaning, you work and work, but you don’t necessarily get anywhere. Another friend said about the publishing industry, “It’s a punishing business.”
So, yes, the question I’ve been thinking about lately is: Why do I write?
Driving home last week with my new radiator, listening to NPR, Martin Scorsese spoke to Steve Innskeep about his newest film, “Silence,” a film about faith and compassion set in 17th century Japan. It centers around two Jesuits priests who infiltrate Japan to recover another priest who may have “gone native.”
Innskeep asked Scorsese whether making movies was his religion. I found this quote that summarized Scorsese’s answer:
This is what I do. If I could paint, it might be better; or if I could write, it might be better. But this is what I know and what I do. And so in a sense they [the films] are religious acts and you could, you know, ridicule that or you could take offense at it, but they are religious acts, even the profane ones. … I’m trying to find out who we are.
This struck me, and I remembered a moment maybe a decade ago when I realized that writing had become my religion. For years, I had been searching for something. I experimented with many religious and self-help practices. A few years after starting a serious fiction writing practice, I realized that I had stopped my endless search. I had found my “religion.”
I write to process the world and myself in the world. I write for connection. I write to understand, as Scorsese says, “who we are.” What is this thing we call “humanity” — the humanity within human kind?
In the car with the new radiator, I realized that I’d lost my way. In religious terms, I’d lost my faith. Faith is a funny thing. It’s just belief that you wrap a ribbon labeled “truth” around. Having faith is a process of circular reasoning, for sure, but that doesn’t lessen the comfort and purpose it provides people as they negotiate treacherous, unfair, unjust life. (Life is beautiful, too, but I’m not talking about that side of it right now.)
For me, it comes back to the practice of writing. Maybe it’s a little like prayer for people of faith. It’s the practice of prayer or any kind of meditation that brings peace and groundedness. Could writing stories be my prayer? Have I lost my prayerfulness as I try to keep up with the publishing biz and figure out how to be a marketing whiz (failing miserably, FYI)?
This is worth thinking about, and so I shall in 2017. I may have to make changes, alter course, I’m not sure. I’ve got to figure out my faith again, just like the Jesuit priests in Scorsese’s movie.
What are you thinking about as we head into 2017?