I started writing poetry in grade school. Encouraged by even the slightest praise, I kept writing poems throughout high school. What I wrote was too abstract to be good- my poems had the slipperiness of an eel soaked in butter. They were abstract because my thoughts were abstract; I didn’t quite know what I wanted to say
If I try to write poetry today, the result is much the same. Someone (perhaps it’s apt that I forget who) once said that, if you write poetry at twenty, it’s because you’re twenty. If you write poetry at forty, it’s because you’re a poet.
A poet I’m not. I know that now. I write essays now, and copy. I ghostwrite ebooks and newsletters and blog posts. I’ve developed some skill in those areas, mostly through sheer persistence and hard work, but also because there’s a seed of talent buried somewhere within me.
I love writing the things I write. It calms me, frees me, answers some questions, and asks some more. Still, it’s stories that I want to write. The itch first began a couple of years ago. I knew I could write well, so fiction simply seemed like the next step.
So I set about writing stories, and discovered that it was hard—really hard—to write fiction. To be honest, I was a bit taken aback. If I was a good writer, why couldn’t I write stories? I tried again, and again, thinking that perhaps my lack of ability was a fluke- maybe the story I was trying to write just wasn’t the right story. So I wrote another. And another. And another.
None of them were good, so I continued. Two years later, I’m just starting to get my bearings in the world of fiction. And one thought keeps nagging me: why do I persist? Why not just stick to blog posts and newsletters? Why do I feel this compulsion to write stories? The answer, of course, is complicated. For starters, there is a nugget of ability somewhere in me; I know that as deeply as I know anything. I feel a tug every time I read a great story and think I wish I’d written that.
It’s more than that, though. I’ve always felt a moral obligation to write stories, an inexplicable feeling of responsibility, of duty, not unlike the responsibility I felt in serving my country in the Navy.
That’s the aspect of my motivation that I’ve been questioning lately, that I’ve been wrestling with. Turns out my subconscious has been wrestling with this problem, too, and it finally revealed the answer to me during a recent conversation with a friend.
This friend had recently attended a conference for work. When I asked him how the conference had gone, he spent no time on the material presented; instead, he told me about many of the other people who’d attended. In recounting many of their behaviors, he could barely disguise the disgust in his voice. They had been rude, self-involved, pushy, demanding.
Not a single detail escaped his lips about the content of the conference- the presentations, the speakers, the food, the hotel. It was all about the people, with a continuous subtext of how superior he was to each of them.
This is why I want to tell stories, I thought. My friend badly needed a dose of empathy, and stories increase our empathy by letting us see things from someone else’s point of view. They teach us that other people live lives just as compex, as difficult, as real as ours. They teach us to step outside of our incredibly limited perspectives and see the world for what it really is: a vast labyrinth of interwoven stories.
While this connected a couple of dots, it wasn’t the final answer. I’d known of empathy’s relationship with empathy prior to this conversation. What I don’t think I realized is just how foundational a lack of empathy is to many of our problems as a society.
In a brilliantly written essay, Mandy Brown explores the notion of a meritocracy through (what else?) a story published in the late 1950s. It’s a timely and necessary topic, since so many have been throwing around the word (meritocracy) lately. Brown explains that, not only are we not living in a meritocracy, but we don’t want to, either, since what a true meritocracy would look like is nothing like what we envision.
...the real meritocracy isn’t one in which every person is judged equally, and any privileges or systemic disadvantages are swept out of the way. The meritocracy we have is one in which the illusion of merit is used to justify the neglect of those less fortunate. That meritocracy is deployed not in order to give everyone an equal opportunity to achieve, but to defend the preexisting structures of power.
The word that struck me here was judged.
Judgement is the most acceptable form of sickness known to man. And make no mistake, it is a sickness. It’s vile, and it twists and contorts our otherwise lovely little hearts into horrific caricatures of themselves.
And it’s everywhere. We judge women, we judge gays, we judge the poor. We judge our neighbors, our colleagues, our friends. Oppression, both large- and small-scale, occurs because a person or group of persons judges another unfairly. The poor are lazy, so let’s punish them. Women are whores, so let’s punish them. Immigrants are taking our jobs, so let’s punish them. My neighbor is a horrible parent, that guy who cut me off in traffic is an asshole, my sister is spoiled.
This is it; this is the problem. Think for just a minute about a world without judgement. Lovely image, isn’t it?
Of course, we’ll never know a world without judgement, but we can use what we know to wound this beast, to keep it at bay.
The only way we do that is through stories, because (remember!) stories cultivate empathy, which destroys judgement.
This is the role of the writer, the role that I’ve decided to take on. Like Vonnegut, I’m disgusted with civilization:
Where do I get my ideas from? You might as well have asked that of Beethoven. He was goofing around in Germany like everybody else, and all of a sudden this stuff came gushing out of him. It was music. I was goofing around like everybody else in Indiana, and all of a sudden stuff came gushing out. It was disgust with civilization.
Lest you confuse my disgust for civilization with misanthropy, consider this: I’m not arguing against humanity; I’m arguing for it. A state of judgement is not our natural state; a state of empathy is. We’re hardwired for storytelling, which means we’ve a natural predilection for a society in which empathy dominates and judgement withers.
And so I had my answer. This is why I feel the need to write stories, why I so revere masters of fiction, because their work is more than fantasy: it is an antidote to the most pernicious and disgusting aspects of ourselves. A story is not an escape, it is a salve, it is medicinal. It is the antidote to the sickness.