Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Things We Do for Love

[NB: This first appeared elsewhere a few years ago. It's still true.]

As a teenager, my son used to keep my mother’s grass cut all through the long hot summers. She had a friend whose own grandson couldn’t be persuaded to touch a mower, so the friend asked my son if he would mow her grass, too. Now my son has never liked getting hot and sweaty so he turned her down even though she offered to pay him generously. “There are things I’ll do for love that I would never do for money,” he said.

I’ve thought about that often over the years –the things we do for love. We’ll wipe a baby’s bottom, we’ll clean up disgusting sickroom messes and empty the bedpans of people we love without the least expectation of monetary reward. Vegetables are cheap to buy, yet we’ll grow our own for the love of gardening.

We would rather have our own raggedy, sweet -smelling roses crammed into a dimestore bowl than a florist’s elegant arrangements because the rosebush was given to us as a housewarming gift from a dear friend. We’ll cook split pea soup for a husband homesick for his mother’s cooking even though the very thought of actually eating split pea soup makes us gag. And yes, we will spend years writing poetry and short stories. We will fill journals with our hopes, dreams and aspirations. We will labor on a novel that may never see publication, we will send out manuscripts over and over again even though no one pays us a dime for our words.

Professional writers love to quote Samuel Johnson —“None but blockheads ever wrote except for money”—because none of us can live on air. If we intend to make our living by our writing, then of course we must be paid enough to live on. But it is equally true that “none but blockheads—and hacks—write solely for money.”

No, we write out of love. A love affair with words and ideas and visual images made permanent, like catching a butterfly and pinning it to the page so that others can inhabit our minds and feel the pleasure we felt when the precise word, the precise turn of phrase was captured. We write to memorialize a beloved parent, a bittersweet romance, a heartbreaking loss. We write for catharsis and for confirmation. Plato wrote that the unexamined life is not worth living. Writers examine every aspect of their own lives and then they go on to examine the lives of everybody around them. What is character and motivation if not the result of that examination? Nothing is off-limits. As E.L. Doctorow wrote, “A novelist is a person who lives in other people’s skins,” which is similar to my favorite Walt Whitman quote: “I am large. I contain multitudes.”

Even if we’re writing nonfiction, we still have to capture the reader’s imagination and interest, and make him care about the things that drew us to write about this subject to begin with.

In my own case, I was fascinated by the possibilities that language held— how a certain combination of words could move me to tears or laughter or start adrenaline flowing through my body. I began to look at the printed page more analytically, trying to understand precisely how the magic worked. Why did the characters created by one writer rise up gracefully off the page while the characters of another just lay there in wooden awkwardness?

Yet even though I knew I wanted to be a writer, I did not immediately know what it was I would write. After flailing around in several different genres, I discovered that I was most comfortable with writing mysteries.

In one of my NY novels, Lt. Sigrid Harald and her housemate are discussing his plans to write a mystery novel and he says he thinks he can do it in three months.

“Three months?” Sigrid asked dubiously. “I thought a book took at least a year.”

“That’s for serious writers,” he told her.

“And you’re not?”

“My dear, I’m forty-three years old. I have a certain flair for the English language, a certain facility, but depth? I fear not. . . .Writers with something profound to say write poetry, writers with something serious to say write novels, but writers with nothing to say write genre fiction. I shall become a mystery writer. . . .And don’t look so sad. I shall try to be a very good mystery writer.”

I have occasionally—with my tongue tucked firmly in my cheek—declared that “it’s a great handicap to want to write and then to discover that you have nothing to say. Where does one go from there?”

This, of course, was never strictly true. I had lots to say but I was also a very private person. I could not write the usual coming-of-age novel wherein the closet doors are flung wide and all the skeletons trotted out for the bemusement of a jaded world. I could not take off my clothes in public. Fortunately, the mystery has allowed me to say anything and everything while still remaining private. There have been no limitations. And because I happen to believe that the mystery contains vestiges of the old morality play with its examination of good and evil, I do have a chance to present my version of how things are or ought to be in this flawed and messy and endlessly intriguing world.

I love that.

And so we come back to the things we do for love.

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