Last week, I wrote about struggling with fear about submitting an application for a part time, volunteer job. I was afraid of failing. But it was more than that. I was also afraid of succeeding, because what if I got the job and then blew it? I’d feel stripped bare, revealed to the world as an incompetent person who didn’t know her own limitations. It’d be like trying out to be a Victoria’s Secret model, certain that I had the body the VS people wanted, only to strip down to my undies and have them laugh at me. Humiliating.
So I was struggling even after I sweated blood for two hours and wrote the cover letter, stressed out for a few more hours and tidied up my resume, and swallowed hard and clicked “submit.”
At some point, I stopped myself. Why was I doing this? I thought. Outwardly, I was fixing dinner or doing laundry, but I was thinking and muttering to myself, why?
It wasn’t just the question “why do you want to have this position?” There are several answers for that one: wanting to connect with the gifted writers of this journal, wanting to use my skills, wanting to help this journal in its mission, wanting to read great writing and learn from it. But those are on the surface. The real question digs deeper.
Why do I write?
In novelist-talk, it’s the inner conflict, the heart of the story, rather than the outward conflict in the plot. Why do I write? Why tell stories? Why create art?
It’s rather like the question I frequently heard in college. I’d be talking to someone (usually an engineer or computer person), and they would ask, “What’s your major?”
“Eww. I hated English.” (As if I’d asked for his opinion.) “Have you ever heard the joke about what an English major asks an engineer?” (As if I was simply dying to hear it.) “‘Would you like fries with that order?’” He cracked up.
I stayed silent; what was there to say? I had no definite plans for using my English degree or art history minor. I knew this wasn’t practical, but I couldn’t force myself to major in some other, practical field that I had no aptitude for learning and no desire to learn. By that point in college, I was trying to survive my depression and sickness.
The stories in my textbooks were a lifeline to hope. Somewhere, at some time, there was a person who wrote this, I would think, and that person lived long enough to write it down on paper: expressed his thoughts, her dreams, revealed the world as they understood it, and even when they got everything else wrong in their view of the world, many still revealed truth.
“Art is the lie that tells the truth.” Picasso
I’ve always been intrigued by this Picasso quote. It’s taken years of mulling over it to find out what he was saying and how it applies to novel writing.
Novelists traffic in lies. It’s our currency, what we exchange as we create stories that tap the truth beneath the story. Not all novels do, of course; some are fluff or smut or propaganda pieces for the author’s pet issues. They’re just lies, but they don’t tell the truth; they aren’t art.
A truly excellent novel tells the truth, just as a good sermon does, but in the guise of fiction. The fictional people are just like us (if only we lived on paper and not on a planet) and whose problems are like ours. Through their story, we are put in their place, their shoes cover our feet, their problems are ours while we read.
And at the end of the very best novels, we are changed: thinking deeply, mulling continually, perceiving other people differently in subtle or not-so-subtle ways. Maybe, just maybe, other people benefit—
the enslaved are unchained, given dignity and respect . . .
the grieved are comforted, knowing they aren’t alone . . .
the despairing are given hope, pointed toward life when their circumstances point to death . . .
They benefit because we perceive others in the light of our changed selves. The truth does that, even when it wears the clothes of story and slips on the shoes of various characters and accessorizes with heart-stopping suspense or romance or witty dialogue. A lie, but one that tells the truth.
That’s what I search for as I write. That’s why I tell stories. That’s why I am passionate about literature and its ability to change the world, one person at a time, as I have been changed.
Question for you, my readers: If you’re a writer or artist (or create anything), why do you do it?