Wednesday, July 16, 2003


Why do we write? There are all sorts of mundane or usual answers to that question--to express ourselves, to tell a story, to entertain, to explore the human condition, to be well-known, to be known well, to be wealthy. But there are other answers that have more to do with the actual moment of creation. It's perhaps a little more personal and therefore embarrassing or revealing to talk about--or revelatory. It's the moment when you feel as if you are outside your body yet more intensely inside your body than ever before. It's the spark, the orgasm, the shock that makes you keep slogging through endless days when all you're doing is marching through pages and hoping that the rewrites, the editor in you, will salvage the material. Is it simply a matter of allowing the world into you like water poured into an empty glass?

I wrote my best description of this sensation for a short story called "Experiment #25 in the Book of Winter: The Croc and You":

The writer picked up his cigar and breathed in its thickness. Take winter—such a bracing time of year, he thought, addressing the glowing red tip as if it were a good friend. Every detail on the sidewalk, from a rage of red-orange leaves to a green meandering crack in the concrete, took on a binocular significance. It was a forethought of the awareness that overtook him when he wrote: the premonition of something moving through him and onto the page, the pen in hand become a blur and the heart so full, limbs aflame, body with fever. Like sparks burrowing into you until, finally conquered, you become vessel, container not contained—trapped and free—and all the little hairs on your arms rise, and you feel as if your own skin has been painlessly flayed back to reveal, beneath the perfect diagram of veins and arteries, the beauty and horror of the world—the words like tiny mysteries and the combinations of words solutions to those mysteries, and yet more mysterious for the revelation...and you’re crying silently because, after all, these words are your life, even in distilled form, even brought forth by an unknown will...and you know this is the closest you will personally ever come to an awareness of what God might mean—this feeling that so encompasses the whole of your being that you are unimaginable strength and weakness intertwined...and in the aftermath, the writer often found, as the madness left him, that he would observe, say, the reflected worlds within a perfect drop of water as it lazed in the sudden sunlight across the yard, and was spent, exhausted, by even that simple image.

Although, as I also observed in that story, the feeling has a falsehood buried within it: what you write when in ecstasy is not always any better than what you write at other, less inspired, times...