Why write?

Peter’s writers block made me wonder why we write in the first place.  Why indeed? Many answers quickly came to my mind; 1) I write because I can – because I learned how to; 2) I write because I cannot notdo it – like Peter seemed to; 3) I write because I must outwardly share what lies within – like I am so compelled to do.  Still, do I write for my own sake or for you, the reader?  And in the end, does it matter why I write and to whom?


How can I even begin to answer such questions?  First, let’s marvel at what writing is: this most amazing invention – the apogee of human’s capacity for symbolic meanings.  With only these A to Z’sand a few grammar rules, we get to describe the reality that surrounds us and to give it a layer of meaning that doesn’t exist in the physical world. In writing, we may express what we -and others – get to perceive, think, and feel.  Ask any psychologists or anthropologists, historians or post-modern scholars, and they will confirm that writing is the super-power of homo sapiens sapiens.  The man who knows – and knows that he knows – became a civilized man the day that we committed to writing the ways we perceive the world.


In other words, writing is a powerful act!  Writing is not merely meaning-making and the labeling of the physical world; though that is powerful enough in and of itself! More importantly, writing is the very act of reshaping the world to our image – of changing a blank page to one exposing our inner selves, our concerns, our very ideals.  There is nothing in the page that constrains what is to be written…  Only the writer decides.  The blank page is pure freedom.  And yet it is agony too, because that page requires from us an unparalleled commitment to individuality.  What we choose to put on that page is the sum of who we are, filtered through what we choose to write about and how we address it.  The page is also fundamentally social as soon as it shared, because it becomes an extension of ourselves embodied in the physical (or virtual) reality – ready to be judged mercilessly by others.  Described like that, no wonder a writer gets blocks?!  So take it easy on yourself Peter!


Am I sometimes afraid of this power?  You bet’cha!  My life would be much easier if I didn’t write, if I wasn’t compelled to take a stand.  Yet writing is one of the most powerful means of action that we still possess in our post-modern world.  With each word I choose, each subject I explore, each logical argument I build or train-of-thought I follow, I empower my individuality.  Hence, through my writing, I keep at bay the countless forces, much greater than myself, that aim to force me into conformity.  Or at least, I tell myself so…


So if this is why I write – to be my own person, with control over the meaning I choose to assign to my surroundings and experiences – then what does it mean when I suddenly can’t write?  Does it mean that I am losing control?  Does it mean that my fears outweigh my desire to be known as the unique snowflake that I am?


When the fear to be misunderstood rises to such a level that I feel stymied in my writing, I take a long deep breath.  I go back to asking myself: why am I writing?


Again, the answers flow: I write to find myself, to discern my essence, my nature.  I write to capture my fleeting impressions, my (maybe precious?) observations. My words are my rebellion.  They are my emergence.  I write to build a bridge between my conscience and yours…


Recently, I’ve been quite silent on this blog.  I am writing my memoir and it is taking all my literary bandwidth – and then some.  It is the story of how an ordinary baby girl transformed into a social philosopher; told through her Quebecois upbringing and personal ordeals.  I write every morning: sometimes I feel elated, sometimes I sob.  Either way, I delve deep into how and why I became who I am.  And I wonder: when I’ll be done, will I be free from my past?  Is knowledge really power?


I am making peace with a difficult past.  Like the phoenix, I am rising.  Yet I realized last week that the man who inspired me to strive, the man who set me on my path, the one whom I tried so hard to please – he’d now never understand what I am trying to accomplish with my words.  That tribute I am writing for his influence on my life, he’d consider it a parting insult!  This realization merely silenced me again: it hurts so much to know that some minds are closed to anything butwhat they choose to believe.


Still, I march on.  I reveal.  I rejoice in the act of writing, in how it makes me feel.  Both powerful and vulnerable.  Alive to and yet slightly removed from the beauty and messiness of existence.


I started writing this blog because I couldn’t not write it.  I kept writing it because I couldn’t not write it.  But last month, I couldn’t write.

I still really can’t.  It’s been an eventful month, though, don’t get me wrong.  I have things to say – I’ve read John McPhee’s 2006 book, Uncommon Carriers, about freight transport in North America, and I’ve read a 1979 assembly of Hericlitus, and I’ve read my son The Trumpet of the Swan by EB White, and my parents gave me Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, and I’ve finally finished the second volume of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.  The ex-girlfriend has ignored my happy new year’s message.  The ex-wife has railed against the existence of our ex-marriage.  My son has gotten more amazing, more loving, more open, and at the same time more curious and more independent and more individual.  My father has gotten better and much worse all at once.  My career has gotten more interesting and more confusing and more wrong and more right all at once.  I have too much to say, too much to think about, and I can’t write.

Tonight, I got to the airport five hours ahead of my flight.  It’s the red eye, as usual, the typical flight every two weeks between the desolate Pacific Northwest and the strange airy desert dust hellscape of south Texas.  I got to the airport early because I had a conference call that started at five thirty Ante Meridian, well before my son woke up, I took the call on my laptop and my cell phone from behind the bathroom door while he slept, and after the call I was exhausted and just wanted to crash in a familiar place, which for me is an airport.  At seven Ante Meridian I opened the door and turned on the lights and put the phone on mute and woke the son up, and made bacon and put a plate of blueberries and pear and while I had one ear on the conference call talking about fixed income asset management which had no chance of being relevant to the people whose savings I’m responsible for, and I encouraged him to put on proper trousers and eat fruit and semi-crispy bacon and color in the star which represented the story I read to him the prior night.  I put on proper trousers myself, and a t-shirt and a sweater, and made myself a coffee, and tried to convince myself that the whole package, of conference call and studio apartment and upcoming flight back to office and flight back in a week and a half, was worth it.  It was, because I put the call off mute and asked a question and it stopped the call and the global megacorp airhead on the other end realized that they weren’t going to get the contract.  The question helped nine million depositors, most of whom have no idea how a bank works.  My son needed to get his socks on.

I asked my friend if she liked horror movies.  It made more sense than the question I asked the global megacorp.  But it was on text, so no one cared.  I hit send and realized I had asked a question that meant a lot but really just cared about whether she responded.  She could say she loved horror movies – which I don’t like – and I still would care.  If she said she loved them and needed me to love them, it would be different.  But she didn’t.  Horror movies aren’t her favorite genre.  My favorite genre, frankly, is probably spaghetti Westerns.  That and romantic comedies.  Sports related romantic comedies.

The ex-girlfriend hated earnest things, but she watched earnest movies – Finding Nemo, Coco – with a kind of desperation.  She craved validation through the exultation of the heroes; I kept finding sympathy with the bit players, with the servants in the background, which queered her narrative.  She hated that.  And now I have a job that exists to help the servants in the background – the ones who don’t know what a bank is for and never will.  And I spent eight hours this morning on a conference call on behalf of the background heroes today that made me realize that there are no heroes any more.  The best we can hope for is service, of those who serve us.  A bad pun.

I had a bad day today and don’t know why.  But for all of that, I woke up to an alarm and a conference call, and an hour and a half later the most beautiful creature on earth stirred and asked me to be quiet.  He was in his bed, next to mine even though mine was empty, he stirred and curled and purred and went back to sleep, and I remembered why I had done everything I had for the past six years, during which I left my wife, during which I torridly joined with the ex-girlfriend, during which I left her and let her leave me.  I thought about why I longed for the voice of the new friend in Maine who called me that night, why I needed this time on my own, this time finally, to read The Arcades Project, why I didn’t want to leave Seattle but didn’t either want to head to San Antonio, why I knew I’d never be able to tell my father what I wanted but knew he’d also understand it all.  It wasn’t really a bad day but it felt that way.

Collapse time and I’m at the airport bar again, hungry.  I ordered the Alaskan Ling Cod fish and chips, along with a couple of dry Gibsons, and the phone rang, silently, letting me know I had missed the calls.  I called the missed number back.  I spoke idiotically, happily, amazed.  She had called me, and her voice was amazing.  It was a voice that let other people tell their story.  I wasn’t sure how to tell mine.  But it was good to hear her voice.

Two hours later, I’m waiting to board the flight to Chicago.  I’m just glad I’m writing again.  I’ll write something worthy of Mark and Viktoria soon.  But tonight, I’m just glad I’m writing.

On unhappiness

Everyone has a character of their own choosing, it is chance or fate that decides our choice of job.

Yesterday my team lost and consequently I was unhappy.  (Not least because they were beaten by the team my daughter supports).  I’m not unfamiliar with the experience of losing, which happens often enough.  The top English football teams will probably play more than fifty competitive games in a season and even the very best will lose around ten per cent of those in most years.   But being a fan – in my case, supporting the same team since I was eight years old – dictates that I will be happy when they win and unhappy when they lose.  Their successes and failures become mine, by proxy.  If I were indifferent to my team’s results, then I would no longer be a fan.

This being so, why be a fan?  Why put myself in the position that I allow events over which I have no control – no influence whatsoever – to determine my feelings, my mood, my sense of well-being?  Why risk the possibility of happiness in this way?   To understand my rationale, consider the words of a celebrated former manager of Liverpool Football Club, who once explained:  Someone said to me, ‘To you football is a matter of life or death!’ and I said, ‘Listen, it’s more important than that’.  It’s instructive to reflect on why this might be true.

Among the famous schools of classical Greek philosophy, the Stoics were renowned for their claim that happiness was to be achieved by living a virtuous life, and that those who were virtuous were happy, whatever befell them.   They taught that we should strive to cultivate a virtuous character and that if we did then, irrespective of our place in society, the circumstances under which our life passed, and the good or bad luck that we encountered day by day, we would be happy.   Since virtuous actions and dispositions are within our power to choose – everyone has a character of their own choosing, says Seneca – it follows that our achievement of happiness is consequent solely upon decisions we make for ourselves.   Fate might cause us all sorts of problems, but it cannot remove our power to determine our happiness.

This has always been a controversial claim, and not just because of the employment choices that fate allowed Seneca to make.  Well before the Roman Stoics set out the case for being indifferent to fate, Aristotle had noted – in the Nicomachean Ethics – that when external events turn out very bad for us, as was the case for King Priam of Troy, it is hard to see how we can continue to be described as happy.  Aristotle accepts that small pieces of good or bad fortune that are outside of our control clearly do not weigh down the scales of life one way or another.  It is possible for someone to experience modest bad luck from time to time, but to live an active and virtuous life and to achieve happiness.

However, whether the big events of our lives turn out well or badly for us will have a material impact on our ability to live well and to be happy.  If we enjoy many major strokes of good fortune, they will add beauty to our lives and enable us to demonstrate nobility in our actions; conversely, if many important events turn out badly for us, they will crush and maim our happiness, through the pain they bring us, and because they hinder our ability to act virtuously.   Even in these cases, Aristotle thinks that the noble character of a virtuous person will shine through, visible in the way that misfortunes are borne.

Aristotle’s argument – that we achieve happiness through our pursuit of virtue, but that external circumstances might constrain our ability to live a good life and achieve lasting happiness – has a parallel with the more recent argument that Karl Marx made, that we make our own history, but we do not make it as we please but under the circumstances that we inherit from the past.   The point for both philosophers is that context is material and, therefore, the belief that our destiny and our happiness are wholly within our own control is illusory.

This is a lesson that is easy to forget, especially when for lengthy periods nothing significantly bad happens to us.  When context is persistently benign, we disregard its threat.  Few of us ever undergo a transformation in the circumstances of our lives of the magnitude that King Priam witnessed, and many of us manage to avoid serious episodes of bad luck for decades.   We are thus seduced into forgetting the fragility of our pursuit of happiness.  We might work hard at living well, we might believe that we are happy, but then, one day, things fall apart.  Due to circumstances beyond our control, and irrespective of the virtues we have cultivated for many years, our grasp on happiness is gone, perhaps not lost forever, but certainly damaged irreparably.

My team losing is not a disaster.  The result was bad rather than good news for me, but it did not weigh down the scales of my life.  My sadness will be very temporary, but the reminder is valuable.  Every time my team plays, they risk losing and I risk a modest bout of unhappiness; but every day, my happiness is in jeopardy, for it might be snatched away from me, subject to the vagaries of ill-fortune.  That’s why sport might well be more than a life and death matter: because it reminds us that achieving happiness is never fully in our control, that we are vulnerable to fate, that contingency must be accommodated and borne with dignity.

There’s a further lesson here too, that should encourage us to be suspicious of Seneca’s over confidence.  He believed in his power to isolate himself from fate but, famously, was forced to kill himself at the insistence of Nero, his former pupil, who suspected his involvement in a plot.  A noble death?  Perhaps, but also an unhappy end to a long and rich life.

Aristotle shows greater wisdom, both in his appreciation of the nuanced relationship between the virtuous life and happiness, but also in his reminder of our permanent vulnerability to having our happiness snatched away from us.  We can be better prepared for whatever the future holds if we avoid hubris and wishful thinking.