The Need to Write

People have different things they need to do most days to make themselves feel whole and intact. For many, it’s going to work, assuming your duties, being productive, doing a good job and taking home a pay check. Some good people feel best when doing something concrete to help others in need. Some love to cook for others, for example. Sekhnet loves bringing forth life-sustaining organic food from the earth, she spends hours a day working contentedly among her plants.

There are also more interior pursuits that make us feel most alive. Some people do strenuous exercise, or meditate, or pray, or chant, or read poetry aloud to themselves every day. For some it is engaging a talent or passion as fully as possible. For a musician, a great session is a life-giving tonic, nothing feels better than sounding as good as they can. For mugs who sit at computers reading and writing for long stretches, writing something coherent about the world, ideally with an original thought or two, feels very productive.

Is this writing any more illusory a daily life-sustaining routine than praying or meditating? I have no idea, though writing every day does it for me. Much of what we do lacks objective value, beyond how it makes us feel.

Reading is generally regarded as a good thing to do, though, if we are judging, we can make a distinction between reading transcripts of demented political hacks that bark to our lower natures and reading beautifully rendered prose that resonates psychologically and fills us with wonder. There is a place for each of these things, I bring them up them as an example of the solitary things we do, for personal reasons, that are not always easy to put onto a scale of value. Masturbation is another of these things, it occurs to me, self-love or self-abuse, as you wish.

I’ve had the need to write every day since I was about fourteen. I’d come to a point in my life where the confusion and anger I felt needed to be combed through somehow. I had to choose a mighty struggle to make the unbearable somehow coherent in language or an unthinkable alternative. There didn’t seem to be a better option, much of the time, than sitting quietly by myself trying to get my vexations into plain words. I found I could often talk myself calmer on the page. I always felt a bit better once I’d thrashed out a difficult situation in a way that made the clashing, senseless parts of it make more sense to me — and to a reader. There is comfort, I find, in coherence. Also, obviously, in connecting coherently with others.

My favorite writers enter into a conversation with me when I read them. The first time I heard Isaac Babel‘s writing read out loud, the cadence of his words fell on my ears with an uncanny familiarity. Babel’s writing (in the English translation by Walter Morrison, I stipulate) speaks to me in an intimately familiar voice (in addition to its unsurpassed condensed beauty). Many years later I realized he wrote some of his stories in the perfect regional accent of my grandparents, his characters spoke exactly like them. A lansman!

But, actually, it is not really the writer’s voice I’m talking about, but the conversation the writer initiates with the reader. I’m thinking now about a writer like Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, or Jane Mayer, author of Dark Money, The Dark Side and other treatments of institutionalized evil. They write clearly and directly to our understanding, individuals with important, complex stories to tell us.

When you read something that speaks to you, that reaches toward your understanding in a way that feels thoughtful… well, I don’t want speak for you, but I find this kind of writing a comfort, a direct connection to another soul. The best spoken conversations we have with people in real life feel this way — our intellect and feelings are held in high esteem and our person is treated as the unquestioned equal of whoever we are talking with.

We are living in an unprecedented shit-storm at the moment. Even without this raging, once every few hundred year plague, we would all be very much up against it.

The world, the inhabitable, non-poisoned, natural planet we’re all part of, is in imminent danger of permanent destruction. The irreversible loss of this is not really up for debate, though the “debate” about it rages on, funded by millions of dollars from the world’s greediest, those who stand to gain the most by sowing confusion while urging the world to ignore the onrushing destruction of our habitat.

The reflexive mass hatred among people, many of whom are poor, out of work, hungry, angry, frightened, was on a scale not seen in decades — before the pandemic hit. Authoritarians, the plain-talking “strong men” who arise during such times, are exploiting this fear and anger to rule the majority of the world’s population at the moment. Not just here — India, Brazil, Russia, China, Philippines, many other populous places.

Then, BOOM!, just when the stress of all this couldn’t be more crushing, the vengeful Old Testament God, right out of a bad Hollywood movie, reaches out a strong hand and smites mankind, all over the world, with a brand new deadly virus.

It’s all enough to make you run even to a job you hate, if you can, just to have eight hours of some kind of normalcy in your life. There are better and worse things to do for stress during scary times like this, and things that help others are better than things that hurt, for sure. We all have to do what we can for those near and dear to us, and out in the larger world, to whatever extent we can reach beyond those we know to help strangers. We are all we have.

In the spirit of virtual camaraderie (had no idea it was spelled that way), here’s a short bit, called New Normal, featuring Bill Burr and Kate McKinnon as a couple stressed out by this weird isolation. The sketch really hits the nail on the head about how socially, psychologically disorienting this hideous situation is. I felt a tiny bit better after watching it, another proof of how impossibly difficult this moment can feel and how an artful evocation of it can help us feel less alone in it. Hopefully it will have the same effect on you:

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