Why I Write
by Wallace Baine
I write because painting involves clean-up.
I write because actors have to obey rageaholic, ego-besotted directors and directors have to deal with vain, nitwit actors.
I write because sculptors always have bruised and cut-up hands and stand-up comics rarely get to bed before 3 a.m.
I write because singers are doomed by their songs. A novelist never has to write the same book twice, but Jimmy Buffett, with all his unimaginable wealth and fame, has to sing “Margaritaville” every day for the rest of his long miserable life.
I write because dance requires musculature that my Creator withheld from me, probably out of spite.
I write because learning music means merciless practicing of scales or chords and no one has ever suggested that sitting down and writing prepositions on a piece of paper for four hours a day makes you a better writer.
I write because language finds a warm, favorable incubation chamber in my brain. My favorite movie metaphor for what it’s like to be a writer is John Hurt in the movie “Alien.” You’ll remember that he plays a scientist whose curiosity gets him in trouble when some enormous, gelatinous space organism attaches itself to his face. After a few hours, the thing dies and falls off and Hurt thinks he’s fine until that famous lunch with his crew mates when the movie’s namesake explodes out of his stomach and disappears into the bowels of the ship.
Artists are merely spawning beds in which experience comes in, and something ugly or powerful or beautiful or utterly mundane bursts out and escapes into the world. It’s a process that’s painful, involuntary and often unexpected, and, as in “Alien,” it usually causes anyone in the immediate vicinity to lose their appetites.
I grew up a collector – baseball cards, comic books, political buttons, among other things – which is a surprisingly common habit of writers. They tend to view language in the same way, words, phrases, ideas to gather and put away in a mental shoe box.
Many years ago, I was jilted by a girl with emerald eyes and hair the color of a Hawaiian cocktail. One day, when I declared my monstrous feelings for her, she fixed me with those beautiful green eyes, brimming with tears, and said, “I’m sorry. I guess I’m just unboyfriendable.”
My immediate reaction wasn’t rage, or horror, or mortification. It was, “Wow, that’s a cool word.” All I remember about her now is that word. Unboyfriendable. I don’t even quite remember the green eyes or the red hair, though I can say with confidence that she did have eyes, and hair.
And that’s another reason I write. Because writing is a license to lie. And, like almost everyone else on this side of the intelligence scale from Forrest Gump, I take deep and lasting pleasure from lying. Like the urban legend that Eskimos have a hundred names for snow, writers have almost as many words for a lie – fable, myth, novel, legend, allegory, story, etc. The word “memoir,” little known fact, is French for “lying to yourself.”
I also write because I’m lazy. I was still a child, I think, when I learned that the great Mark Twain wrote many of his best works flat on his back in bed. That’s my kind of artist right there. Let’s see Yo Yo Ma or Georgia O’Keeffe or Baryshnikov do that.
And yet, I can even trump the mighty Twain on that score. He had to exert himself in the task of writing long-hand on paper. Me, I can do my work perfectly well on a laptop with nothing but a pulse of my fingers, the absolute minimum physical exertion the human body is capable of, except maybe for blinking your eyes, and I’m not even willing to concede that point without some scientific backing.
What else would Walt Whitman have become if he were not a writer? He would have never painted a picture of a spear of summer grass, or composed a sonata to it. He would have never gotten around to it. If he were not imbued with the mantle of the great poet, Whitman would have been seen as a worthless reprobate for laying around in the grass, particularly in the 19th century when hard, back-breaking manual labor was the price you paid for staying out of the grave for another day, when being lazy took real guts.
Writing, in fact, endows a certain kind of respectability to people who may have none otherwise. It often gives royal robes to scoundrels. It makes some shut-in necrophiliac creep into Edgar Allan Poe. It turns a foul-mouthed drunk into Charles Bukowski. I write in hopes of copping some of that magic for myself, in hopes of escaping my destiny as just another tamed middle-aged white guy.
Now that we’ve already established that I’m a liar and a loafer, and since I have no resistance to cheesy alliteration, allow me to complete the L-trilogy and declare myself a loser as well.
I write because my natural-born athletic ability was strangled in its crib. As a kid, I dutifully attempted every sport that presented itself to me, under the absurd notion that sucking in one was an indication of latent talent at another.
From baseball to tennis to soccer to football, I engaged in one predictable ritual of humiliation after another. Wearing a sports uniform was the only way I found to actually register on the retinas of teenaged girls, however fleetingly. Though what I didn’t realize was that, for other teenaged boys, wearing a uniform had the magical effect of removing the last shred of social restraint to the kind of behavior we would find appalling in gorillas. Yeah, Job has his problems. But he never had to be the smallest and slowest kid at football practice in August on a team of aspiring sadists.
These are the kinds of things that drive a kid to guitars and motorcycles, both of which I flirted with. Neither flirted back.
And so I was left with writing, exiled in my bedroom, filling spiral-bound notebooks with great gaseous arias of self-pity that I fantasized would be read over the loudspeaker by the principal the day after I was killed while trying to deflect an asteroid that otherwise would have obliterated the school in the middle of third period.
It was only then, when I had adapted to my life as an invisible vapor moving through the corridors among the cheerleaders and drama nerds, that I realized that writing is the only truly private art. It is the scaffolding on which you can build your inner life. Writing doesn’t just fall on the ear or the eye. It demands engagement. If you are a musician, someone is going to hear you play, even if against their will or by accident. If you are a painter, someone is going to stumble upon your art and judge it, even if it they weren’t terribly interested in it in the first place. But no one has ever read a novel by accident. Nobody can ever know how gifted, or how awful, a writer you are without investing a whole lot of intellectual effort to find out. And who in this cruel, indifferent world is going to do that?
Besides moping and loving Dr. Pepper, writing was the only thing that came natural to me as a kid. It was, I figured, no different than talking. The same principles applied. But, as a stutterer, talking was like dancing in a minefield, and I didn’t do it very well. And writing is the best option when you have no one to talk to anyway.
Writing is, in fact, as close to pure thought in art as you can attain. If you screw up, you can’t blame the piano, or the camera, or the oil paint, or any other tool of your craft that you depend on. You can try. You can say:
“Well, you know that adjective really let me down. It’s just so hard to create with inferior materials. Stephen King can go out and buy the best verbs money can buy, but I’m on a budget.”
“My wife got me a really nice set of punctuation marks for my birthday, but already a couple of commas are beginning to wear out and my semi-colon is in the shop.”
You can try that. But no one over the age of three is going to let you get away with it. Writing is the artform with no excuses.
And that’s another reason that I began to write. Because you didn’t have to ask your parents for any capital layout. You never had to share credit. You never hear a successful writer’s parents say, “You know, I bought her her first number two pencil.” So the materials threshold is appealingly low, and inspiration for a writer is as close to free as you can expect, even back in the pre-Internet age, thanks to the wonderful socialist innovation known as the public library. And if you’re too lazy to get your hands on a pencil, notebook and library card, then maybe you should starve.
Which brings me to that other reason that I write.
I write because I’m apparently allergic to money, and there is no safer bet to avoid the pressures and burdens of being ridiculously wealthy than to aspire to be a writer. Yes, there are a few of us who have, for whatever reason, slipped into obscene riches. But when you write about boy wizards and vampires, you should know the risks.
All artists tell themselves and each other that art is essential. But deep down we know that’s not true. What’s essential is water, food, shelter, clothing and, for most Americans apparently, ammo. But that’s just for animal survival. To live as humans, art is essential. It becomes so the instant you realize that one day you’re going to die. Living with mortality is impossible unless you’re a creative being, or at least receptive to the creativity of others.
The steroidal winner-take-all free-market capitalism of today sends us the message that animal survival is all that really matters, that the banker is a more exalted expression of human aspiration than the poet. And it’s an ethic that even artists begin to take to heart after a while.
For years, I lashed myself for indulging in writing. “You want to make a real difference in the world?” the Inner Critic said, “Go be a farmer. Feed people. Build them houses. Your pretty words can’t fill bellies. Your songs, your plays, your paintings, a man will burn them all to keep his children warm.”
That is, of course, a cynical and corrosive worldview. That puts us on an equal plane with cows and birds and pigs and insects. All false modesty aside, the human animal is a first among equals. If we make it our highest calling just to keep our bellies full, we are abdicating our potential as the most advanced lifeform in the known universe. And once we are warm, safe and no longer hungry, art is what beckons us to meet a deeper hunger. Art is the greatest adventure.
And by art, I don’t mean pictures on tote bags. I’m talking about the impulse to find out who we are and where we’re going. Religion and spirituality are forms of art and not until we can see that are we ever going to be truly free. The Bible, the Torah, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita – these are all works of writing. They are God’s way of making art, if you’re inclined that way. Greek myths are stories, works of art, that dragged us out of antiquity. And the great religions of the world are now the institutions compelling us to live, and occasionally die, for the sake of a metaphor.
Our species is caught between the literal world and the metaphorical world, and the result is an intractable cycle of unimaginable pain and violence and suffering. Art provides a way out of that in-between place. We all have an individual mission on this earth, to become the best human we can be before our time is up. To be better people than our parents were, and compel our children to be better than we were. That can’t be done without art.
I’ve used a lot of words here to express what can be really captured in just one five-letter word. T-R-U-T-H. If truth is that far land beyond the horizon to which the inner compass of our humanity draws us, then metaphor is the boat that will take us there.
And that’s why I write: to earn my place on that boat.