Why do we write? Why do we make music? Why do we create art?
I’ve been rolling these ideas around in the marble maze of my brain for some time now. There are various ‘things’ I ‘do’ (excepting the usual things, eating, drinking, doing dishes…). I’m referring to the things that I present to the world as products, effects, that are unique to me. Poetry, short stories, blogs posts, the odd article, translations, making clothes, geometry or painting when I get the chance…I seem to cycle through them one by one, with breaks for everyday activities and to tend my vegetable garden.
Part of me wonders if, in order to be considered a ‘proper’, professional writer, I should be sitting down at the computer for eight hours a day, clocking in and off as though I had a boss looming overhead with time-sheets clutched in his thunderous fist, the way I imagine ‘real’ writers (I mean, people who have publishers looming over them in a similar way) have to do.
I don’t know if it’s something I can blame on my womanhood, and the cyclical nature inherent in that, or being a mother, and the similar cycles of washing, hanging out to dry, collecting in and getting things dirty again that it involves.
Certainly there are days that seem to spin past in identical form, and my life appears to be a hamster wheel in which I am racing forward on the scent of a biscuit but never really going anywhere.
But then, the reality of sitting down at a computer and typing for long hours every day, as I’m currently doing for a translation job, is not really that fun – other than the enjoyment of the work itself.
Your shoulders get tense and knotty, you neck gets stiff, your eyes itch, your back aches, your legs seem to vanish from your consciousness, you get terribly cold as your circulation stagnates…it’s as though the body is kept in a battery chicken cage during those interminable working hours.
If you were to do the same kind of static, limited movements for that many hours a day in any other job, let’s say, making coffee in a café, you’d get Repetitive Strain Injury and be able to sue your employer. (Where’s that boss with the thunderous fists when you need him?)
So moving from one art to another, using different muscles, and meanwhile letting ideas mature in the back of the brain is not such a bad proposition. It fleshes out the limited nature of the job in a physical sense, makes it somehow synesthetic. Flashes of the other activities appear in the writing – the tactile sense of cloth in The Peace It Pivots On, the catharsis of pulling out weeds in Vetch, and so on.
And, not least, the interactions that occur with other people in the course of doing other things inevitably enrich a writer’s work. How do you have anything to write about if you are locked in an office all day? Can’t we count a trip to the beach as research? Everything we do as writers is research. If you aren’t careful you end up writing stories about people writing stories – the literary equivalent of pulling lint out of your bellybutton and parading it as life.
Which brings me back to my first questions. Why are we writing? To move the furniture of our subconscious around? Or are we focussing on what we get from our readers, the likes on Facebook, the comments, the shares? I have to confess to a sneaky desire to see all these things increment. I don’t know if I’d share them if the desire wasn’t there.
But it makes me wonder why I am writing, then. If I only do what I do in order to receive praise, I’m back on that hamster wheel, salivating at the thought of the biscuit but never really being satisfied by it.
In fact, whenever we do anything because we get some pleasure out of it – which inevitably only gives us that rush of pleasure temporarily, and then leaves us with a cold, dark hole in our chests and the need to go back and get more – we are basically courting addiction. It can be drugs, porn, chocolate, shopping, or it can be something subtler, like praise. It’s the celebrity’s Achilles heel.
It’s also one of those habits of parenthood that we get chided for in parenting books. Encouraging a child to do something because we’ll give them a sweet for it won’t teach them to do it for it’s own sake (which is the really crucial question). You are effectively training a dog to do tricks for a snack.
And we aren’t dogs. We have drives and needs that go way beyond anything we associate with animals – at least, as far as we can tell. Sure, a pet dog likes being stroked and tickled too – but it would bite you if it was living in the wild. We domesticate animals by yoking them with this stimulus-reward cycle. They never really grow up, and we love them for their childishness.
But why do we write, then? Or make music, or art, or do anything?
There are hormonal reactions that occur when the reward centre of the brain is prodded. The reactions rise and fall. There is another place that produces hormones, and feelings of pleasure (not that place…): I mean the heart. When you plunge into it, it opens out all round into an infinite sunlit ocean, rays streaming down in sparkling filaments that wave and point towards the depths.
Here anything is possible, and everything is done for a different sake, since there is no mirror to bounce our actions off, no Other to reward us with sweets or biscuits or a virtual like. This is not us at all. This is where our best art emerges from, gestating in this endless, gravityless space in which the drop – that tiny fractal of the ocean – is merged with the whole.
It takes a while to slip into this place, to get adjusted to the temperature of the water, to take the deepest breath possible and dare to go under. And it’s only when I’ve found a pearl and brought it up for the world to see that the mirrors start appearing again. If I see that pearl reflected in them, multiplying my admiration for it in the multiples that are reflected back at me, that’s one thing. But inevitably there’s the praise (or criticism) that comes with it too. That’s when I wonder why I am doing it, and if I shouldn’t hold that pearl as close to me as I can, forever.
But then it never gets to be multiplied in the kaleidoscope of people’s reactions. The really daring pearl diver knows that finding the pearl is not the hardest part.
Why do we write? Why do we make music? Why do we create art?