With Elizabeth and others, I’ve written 50 produced plays (ye gods, I just counted!), over 200 sketches, 40+ short stories, and now working on the seventh novel—not to mention countless press releases and grant applications (another form of story-telling) and five years of a biweekly blog. I remember that when I wrote my first poem at the age of fifteen, I feared I’d never write anything so good again. Mayhap—dread thought—I haven’t?
Many reasons for writing, intermingled. Produce a best-seller and get invited to parties. Live forever. Reside in a quaint New England village where poets live and take morning walks with your dog. Become attractive. Express yourself and get accepted as such. Avenge yourself. Take your place among the immortals who get dessert. Have fun with words. Transform all the shit you’ve endured into rich fertility. Write what you’d like to read—though by the 8th draft you might be sick of it.
Few of us are likely to admit to any of these. Better that we’re trying to save the world, establish justice, delve into the human condition, interrogate the dominant culture, even make people think. We talk about that stuff a lot, and we try very hard to believe it.
But I’m one of those coots who shave daily with Occam’s razor. At this late stage of development, I’ve come to realize that my chief impetus for telling stories is simply the need to tell stories. I have no idea why. Or wherefore, which means the same as why. Before high school, I was a happy consumer of sports stories and cowboy movies. In high school, it was acting; in college, stage directing. I backed into writing like backing into an exhaust fan, and my backside has been in rotation ever since. My only real fear of death is leaving something unfinished, and since I start a new project before the last one is done, I’m not sure how that interfaces with mortality. It’ll be one of those great books that no one’s ever read, though I’ve written a few of those already.
The narrator of our current novel, set in the early Middle Ages, writes in an aside: “At times I shy from this story as our donkey shied from a rickety bridge. Yet storytelling is our heartbeat, and stories our breath. We ask not, Why should I breathe?—we simply feel our lungs cry out like a babe demanding suck. So I string out these words like a merchant caravan, trusting they come to safe harbor before the mules go lame. Our priest scowls on my progenitors, the minstrels and mimes. Yet could Our Savior have endured the dusty roads of Palestine without the rude jokes of the fisherfolk who followed Him?”
Some stories are sacred, some are godawful. With luck, they might offer us what we need for survival: a clue to reality. On the other hand, they can con us out of our undies. But somehow we’re compelled to sail between the Scylla of Truth and the Charybdis of Pleasure, and come home warm and toasty.