Why Do Writers Write?

Last week, as I was rolling along the Florida Turnpike on the way to work, I heard Colm Toibin, the Irish novelist and short story writer, being interviewed by Diane Rehm. Toibin is the author of the award-winning novel “The Master,” a fictional but fact-based account of Henry James’s life and art. Toibin was in the studio to talk about his new book of short stories, titled “Mothers and Sons.”

Most of the stories, he said, focus on sons who have grown into manhood, but still struggle to come to terms with a childhood full of silences, rejections and abandonments, including the abandonment of death. In one story, a portion of which Toibin read aloud, a man whose mother left home long ago recognizes her as she sings a song in a pub. She seems to be looking straight at him, and he suspects that she knows who he is, but he leaves without saying anything, thus preserving their history of distance and nonconnection. Apparently, these stories are not uppers.

As I listened, I found myself not liking (an emotion different from disliking) the author. First of all, his reading of his own prose was overly dramatic and too elocutionist for my taste; the fine subtlety of his sentences was, I thought, being overwhelmed by the delivery. But the main source of my irritation – a mild irritation; I really didn’t have much of a stake in this, or so I believed in the beginning – was his refusal to engage with questions posed to him by Rehm and listeners who called in.

Rehm began by asking him about his own mother, and he told her that his mother had now died, that his father had died much earlier, and that for most of his childhood the family consisted of his mother, himself and his younger brother who has, he reported, also died – in circumstances he refused to divulge, even when he was pressed on the point. Sometime during this part of the interview he said, not in response to a question, please don’t think that these stories are autobiographical; my relations with my mother weren’t like that at all.

This effort to keep separate the stories as stories – that is, as verbal constructions – and the lived experience of the person who wrote them was intensified when it came time to respond to callers. They were all fervent admirers, but what they wanted to talk about and what he didn’t want to talk about at all was the comfort and solace given to them by his work. They felt that he was speaking directly to them and that he wrote with at least the partial intention of helping his readers through a bad patch. They were calling in to tell him how much he had indeed helped, and they hoped, it was clear, that the bond they had formed with him at long distance would be deepened if they spoke to him in person (as it were) and told him their stories. This, they proceeded to do, in halting narratives sometimes punctuated by tears. They were stories of dysfunctional families, mostly Irish, and they were full of the pain produced by rejection, estrangement and (often) alcoholism. The callers asked, implicitly, for recognition and empathy.

He wasn’t giving any. He spoke to them of course, but he ran away from the emotions they were offering him as we all do when confronted with a demand we cannot satisfy. What he could not do or was unwilling to do Rehm tried to do for him. It was she who, after he was finished speaking, said something sympathetic and consoling, something that communicated a measure of fellow feeling.

I grew more annoyed, until I heard him say something that turned his refusal of intimacy (if indeed intimacy can be achieved between a radio voice and an audience) into a stance I recognized and could admire. A caller asked (and her tone assumed an affirmative answer) whether the writing of these stories was a way of dealing with the deaths of his mother and younger brother. He replied, it’s not that, “it’s not therapy,” and went on to explain that assuaging grief, his or someone else’s, is not what writing strives to do. In fact, if there is a relationship of an act to the satisfaction of a need, it is the other way around. The act of writing makes use of grief as it might make use of anything.

Imagine a painter, he said, who suffers the loss of a family member. He might well find (involuntarily) that the darker colors of the palette seem to offer more opportunities for composition than they had before. In short, and he didn’t quite say this, it’s the craft that is important, not the emotions it may have appropriated along the way. What he is interested in is the telling of the story and the finding of the sentence that might best conclude it.

It was then I saw that what I had first regarded as a suspect evasiveness was in fact a determination to be faithful to the practice he was dedicated to and a refusal to claim for that practice effects that could not or should not be its objective. If a reader feels consoled or comforted, that’s all to the good, but it’s not what writing is about. Writing is about crafting sentences and building them into paragraphs and building the paragraphs into arguments and narratives. What Rehm and her listeners were proffering was a rationale for the act that was not internal to its demands, a rationale that could take the form of an external justification: I write so that you will feel better or I write so that the world will become a better place.

Toibin was saying, I write because making things out of words is what I feel compelled to do. Of course the words refer to events in the world, including events I may have witnessed or experienced, but to locate the value of the writing either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick.

It makes perfect sense that Toibin would find his novelistic inspiration in Henry James, who remains enigmatic despite massively documented biographies by Leon Edel and others. James is often portrayed, as he is at times in “The Master,” as someone who turned his back (injured in some way never specified) on life and occupied himself solely with his art. Toibin has him at one point saying “life is a mystery and … only sentences are beautiful,” and at another point resolving to “do the work of his life,” the work of “high art.”

I believe this resolve, and the stringency it requires, is generalizable. If you’ve found something you really like to do – say write beautiful sentences – not because of the possible benefits to the world of doing it, but because doing it brings you the satisfaction and sense of completeness nothing else can, then do it at the highest level of performance you are capable of, and leave the world and its problems to others. This is a lesson I have preached before in these columns when the subject was teaching, and it is a lesson that can be applied, I believe, to any project that offers as a prime reason for prosecuting it the pleasure, a wholly internal pleasure, of its own accomplishment. And if your project doesn’t offer that pleasure (perhaps among others) you might want to think again about your commitment to it.