Writing is a vehicle to bare one’s soul, arguably its own reward. Imagining another would want to participate in a writer’s, or any artist’s emotions, ramblings, or musings is infused with vanity. Write for oneself. Revel in its perfection. Know that that perfection will be shed naked like a tree in deep autumn the moment the piece is shared with a second person.
Or, it is cathartic therapy, an outpouring of self to animate a thought that pushes to the fore and demands to surface. (For a quintessential example, look no further than Sarah Wildman’s achingly beautiful and devastatingly eloquent Guest Essay about her daughter’s death in the May 19, 2023 issue of the New York Times, online. And yes, Mr. Stephen King, my idol and favorite author… sometimes it is okay to use adverbs.)
(In my case, profound thanks to all seventeen of my fans scattered across North America. Stephen King, I am not.)
Best then to focus not on the “why” of writing, but rather on the pronoun in my essay’s title. What sparked my compulsion to write a fictionalized account of John Lennon’s redemption on the 40th anniversary of his assassination? I was reminded of that dreadful event on December 8th, 2020, and the story crystallized from my brain to the keyboard, a tale of Lennon’s last solo concert on the banks of Ohio’s Vermillion River. But the impetus does not get to the root of why that urge overtook me and why nothing was more important in that moment than attacking the laptop with my thoughts. “The story wrote itself” or “I was in the zone” are clichés authors use to describe the single-mindedness that crowds out everything but breathing and typing. (And the breathing is no sure thing, as it can be interrupted when the right word or turn of phrase materializes on the computer monitor.)
A toast that needed to be jotted down, lest I come up short in front of 200 wedding guests evolved into a since-published apology to my son for disdaining his music choices. How arrogant it was of me to tease him for exactly that which my parents had taunted me half a century earlier.
If I didn’t write my not-yet-published story of my mother’s attempted suicide, how would my children know that they would not be here had she been “successful?”
Grief, regret, and pathos need not be the only servants of writing. Humor and happiness are equally meaningful precipitants. My current work-in-progress climaxes with Cookie Monster’s appearance in my backyard. (It’s a scream, trust me.) Out of a desire to share the most memorable laugh of my life (admittedly THC-aided, though I do not believe that taints or dilutes) was born a story about a bowling ball in a museum. The story only took shape through internalization of Hemingway’s ultimate prompt: write the truest sentence that you know. (Mine was “there is joy in remembering joy.”)
In “Goodbye Boomer,” a semi-autobiographical piece about a reunion with my real-life college buds full of truthful characterizations and details, Bruce, one of our own, dead of a heart attack in the story, in truth, continues to root for the Spartans and love a good hamburger. In a bastardization of Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s excuse, I assert “writer’s prerogative.”
It is the reader’s prerogative to label all this academic discourse as misdirection and non-responsive bullshit to the slippery question, “why do I write?” So, I tell you succinctly. “I can,” or “I want to,” or “it makes me feel good” are correct and true. Yet they feel like excuses, trite and thin, incongruent with the weighty question even as they are consistent with Hemingway’s advice.
It is a story of how two partygoers, at opposite ends of the current U.S. political divide who would shout at each other with vitriol under different circumstances, enjoyed a deeply human exchange that nullified their differences and amplified their shared humanity. Write, because how else can stories worth telling be told?
Our guests shook off the snow for an evening of libation, food, and holiday music. Welcoming them all, I bounced among the front door, the thickening crush of coats in the closet, and the bar.
The early rush lulled. The men self-served beer from an ice-filled copper bucket. The women, in sequined Christmas sweaters and expensive jeans, took well to the drink of the house, pomegranate liqueur-drizzled cava. The concoction was a hit as the returning empty champagne flutes—more, please—and loudening cackles proved.
I performed rounds in search of sinking drink levels and empty beer bottles, light work that I enjoyed with a peppery Red Zin.
Butch and his wife had arrived in the second wave. He was red-faced and gray-bearded. He deliberated the beers, chose well, and I branded him a low-maintenance guest with whom I might or might not speak again until coat retrievals and good-byes.
On another wine-soaked review of the crowd, I found Butch alone pulling on his beer in my study. Hosting, socializing, I offered a recent copy of an oversized, glossy magazine with a feature on a famous photographer. The two page, black-and-white layout of four statuesque models, nude on the left page of the spread, fashionably clothed in the same poses on the right, was enough to interest any male with a pulse. I returned to the party.
A half-hour later, I found Butch still engrossed in the periodical. We began discussing photography and he complimented the framed images on the walls.
We thumbed through one of my portfolios and he tensed over “American Barn.” He knew its location instantly, noteworthy recognition considering it was tucked in among shots from Italy to Singapore to New York to Paris to down my exurban country road. His wife had joined us and she looked on with a sad smile as the yarn poured from him.
The barn sat half a mile from where we drank. His mother, in dementia’s final grip, had been born on this farm. Her brother had lived there for decades. This uncle died not long ago, childless, and so the thing was sold.
Butch, transfixed, reminisced: horseback riding, hay lofts, family dinners. His wife stroked his hand and his voice dwindled as he recounted decline, aging, and mortality. He spoke until he cried. A man named Butch, a grizzled, quiet, beer drinker, was moved to tears by one of my pictures.
I offered the print. He feigned refusal, but I insisted and he relented. Something special had happened for him that night at a party where he probably figured he’d have a beer or two, hear a carol, maybe a joke, and be on his way.
What better reward is there for an artist than to provoke emotion?
“American Barn” is an example of why I write. I would come to learn years after the 2006 party that Butch had become a rabid Trump supporter. I am not. Would Butch have been invited had Trump been on the political radar when we were planning our party? I don’t know; probably not. The point of the tale’s telling is that had I not written it down, only the three in my study that night would have had this moment that demonstrated that beneath the politics and other societal veneers with which we adorn our personas, at bottom we are humans in need of positive interaction and shared experience. I was pleased to give Butch the print, regardless of his developing politics. Does “American Barn” answer the question posed throughout? Do we write or photograph or otherwise create art to elicit emotion? Maybe, but I remain uncertain as to what the answer to “why” is. I promise to keep trying.