Friday, April 26, 2013

The Meaning of Life, or, Why I Write

I suppose it was one simple question that actually started it all.  I was a student at the University of California at San Diego when I signed up for a class in creative writing.  It counted toward my general education requirements and sounded like easy credit.  We would make up stories, type them out, and then sit around in class and discuss them.  What could be easier than that?  I did end up enjoying the class but didn’t think too much of it in broader terms until the end when I stopped by my instructor’s office to pick up my final project and find out my grade.
“Are you going to make a career out of fiction writing?” my instructor asked.
“What?” the question caught me completely off guard.
“Will you continue writing as a career, or is this it for you?”
Looking back now, I can see how that one question completely changed my life.  Maybe it would have been better for me if he’d simply never asked.  But he did, and it got me to thinking.  If this person, this creative writing instructor, thought that I had what it took to make it as a writer, then why shouldn’t I think so too?  It was a revelation.  I never ended up taking another creative writing course in my life, but from this one innocent comment the wheels in my head were set in motion.
Writing seemed to offer everything I wanted in a career.  There was independence from the normal dictates of society.  No nine-to-five, clock punching.  As a writer I would work on my own terms, when and where I wanted.  There was the respect afforded to successful writers.  After all, writers were among the people I’d always admired the most myself.  There was the potential to earn a good living.  Perhaps most importantly, there was the prospect of having an intellectual life, and thus the chance to wrest some greater meaning from my existence.
            The way that I saw it, certain professions really did allow one to change the world.  Good teachers could do so, by broadening the world view of their students one at a time.  Scientists could expand upon our understanding of the universe.  Journalists could expose corruption and strive toward keeping our political system honest.  Most jobs did not afford this opportunity to work toward the greater good in this larger sense.  The vast majority of people had jobs in which they could help their fellow man on a micro level, but their actions wouldn’t change anything much on a grander scale.  A dentist, for instance, might be very good at filling a tooth.  This ability would pay the bills quite well and afford respectability in society.  It would be of great service to the client, whose tooth needed filling, but it wouldn’t contribute anything at all toward the greater good.  It wouldn’t change society in any way.  The same could be said for shopkeepers, restaurateurs, bankers and plumbers.  Accountants, pilots and policemen.  All provided useful, necessary services.  None of them were likely to change the world.  But could a writer?  Few writers do, that much I would freely acknowledge, but the answer to the question of whether or not they can is a definite yes, they certainly can.
As the novelist Scott Turow pointed out in a New York Times op-ed, writing is one of the few professions singled out in the United States Constitution for special protection.  Copyright laws are so important, Turow wrote, because “a diverse literary culture, created by authors whose livelihoods, and thus independence, can’t be threatened, is essential to democracy.”
This idea that literature is essential to democracy matches my view that potential abuses of power can be held in check by a population that is cognizant and aware of those abuses.  It is why tyrannical governments work so hard to censor the press, oppress writers and manipulate artists.  Russia has one of the greatest literary traditions in history, with the likes of Tolstoy, Chekov and Dostoevsky among their literary giants.  These writers were all political to one degree or another, yet when I was growing up no novelists in the U.S.S.R. would dare to challenge the state.  If they tried, their works would never see the light of day and the writers themselves would be risking prison or worse.  The same held for the artists, who were relegated to producing re-creations of Lenin statues or paintings in the style of “Soviet-Realism,” glorifying the ideals of the working class.  When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote about his days as a political prisoner in The Gulag Archipelago, he lived under constant fear of re-arrest.  The book itself was eventually smuggled to the West on a micro-film, where it was published in 1974.  It wasn’t legally available in Russia until the U.S.S.R. was on the brink of collapse fifteen years later.  This was the kind of writer I admired the most.  This was a writer slaying dragons with his pen and proving the maxim that it was indeed mightier than the sword.  
Of course most literary writing is so overtly political.  Many literary writers are concerned with more intimate issues, involving a closer look at human nature and our interactions with one another.  These writers are not examining the world on a macro level, but are looking at what makes us tick as individuals, our relationships, and the commonalties that we share as human beings.  One might consider James Joyce in this category, or perhaps William Faulkner or Virginia Woolf.  These writers find themselves concerned with the themes of alienation and familial tension.
When I compare a writer like Orwell with a writer like Joyce, I sometimes use an analogy relating to how different people are interested in different types of news.  The way I see it, there are really three types of hard news.  There is local news, national news and world news.  Some people are primarily interested in local news.  They can relate to it because it concerns issues in their daily lives that affect them directly.  Maybe the story has to do with the school where they send their children, or the mayor who they met at an event a few months earlier.  Other people are more interested in national news.  They pay close attention to national politics and the issues that connect and divide us as a nation.  Still others don’t care as much about local or national news, but are drawn to world news.  These are people who take a step further back and look at the bigger picture of what connects us all as humans.  These people tend to consider themselves citizens of the world more than just citizens of a nation or of a community.  I see Orwell as one of these types of writers.  It is why I relate to him.  I also consider myself a big picture kind of person.
By this analogy, Joyce, for all of his brilliance, was a local news kind of guy.  That doesn’t mean he wasn’t describing the greater human experience, because he certainly was, only from a much closer view.  Perhaps a better analogy is that of a simple watch.  Joyce has the watch open and is closely examining the gears and how they interact with each other.  Orwell is looking at the watch as a whole, and maybe even considering the concept of time itself.
One thing that connects these differing perspectives is that all novels must be personal at their core.  Orwell’s 1984 is not just about an authoritarian government run by a nameless entity.  It is about Winston Smith, a naïve everyman caught up in the government’s web of lies, deceit, and ultimately torture.  Orwell uses this prism to extrapolate larger social truths from the experiences of one man.  All literary writers do this in one way or another, using their characters to make broader points about humanity.  Unlike popular novelists, who are primarily trying to entertain, literary novelists have what they consider to be important insights to share.  It is sharing these insights that gives their lives meaning.
At the time that I started down this path myself, I only had a vague notion of the concept of finding meaning in life.  I knew that I wanted it, and I thought that writing might provide it, though my flirtations with the idea were mostly on a subconscious level.  What I did suspect was that most people find little or no meaning in their jobs at all.  Or at least I wouldn’t find meaning in the jobs that most people had.  I needed that prospect, however slight, of making some difference in the grand scheme of things.  The way I saw it, few jobs provided that opportunity.  An airline pilot might be able to find some personal meaning in safely transporting passengers from one location to another, but they were not likely to change the world.  I needed at least that sliver of a possibility that my work actually might.
Philosophers have long considered the concept of meaning in life and whether it is really even possible to achieve.  The general consensus among them is that, no, meaning is not really possible to achieve.  There is no meaning in life.  The conflict between man’s innate desire to find meaning and the impossibility of actually finding any is known as absurdism.  This school of thought posits that the universe itself is meaningless, thus there can be no way to find meaning on a human level.  This ideology hasn’t stopped mankind from constantly striving to find it.
Looking around at my fellow inhabitants of planet earth, I do wonder how many people actually search for meaning actively.  I suspect that the answer to this question is, relatively few.  I don’t think it is something most people consciously think about at all.  This isn’t to suggest that they aren’t still searching, though I suspect it is more often on a subconscious plane.  Most people, it seems to me, search for meaning through personal relationships, providing for their families, religion, acquiring material wealth, or in a host of other personal ways large and small.
For me, the moment I decided that I wanted to be a writer signified the beginning of my own lifelong search for meaning.  This, even though I tend to agree with the philosophers who claim that the universe is without it.  Whether it truly exists or not, we still must live our lives in the world in which we find ourselves, and a world without meaning is a cold, dark prospect indeed.
Some absurdist philosophers recognize the incompatibility of searching for meaning in a universe that has none, yet advocate that search nonetheless.  Albert Camus, for instance, claimed that the only way to approach this conundrum was to first fully embrace the concept of the absurd.  In other words, one must acknowledge that finding meaning is impossible.  Once this acknowledgement has been made, the person should continue in the search for meaning, though never losing sight of the fact that it is impossible to really find.  If this sounds a bit absurd, well, I suppose that is why the term itself is used to describe the problem.  Camus argues that once one has confronted the concept directly and rejected the prospect of objective meaning, a person can still create subjective meaning in their own life, which in turn can make their life worth living.
When I decided that I wanted to be a writer, I was a long way from confronting the concepts of absurdism.  All I knew was that I wanted a career that would provide some meaning, subjective or otherwise, and I thought that writing might be it.  If I could make my own small difference in the evolution of social understanding, then perhaps my life might be worthwhile.  I knew it was a tall order, but it seemed one worth aspiring to nonetheless.  I suspect that this is a goal shared by all literary novelists throughout the ages, whether they are more of the big picture, political type writers that I aspired to be or the more tightly focused authors like Woolf and Joyce.  A contemporary literary novelist that I would consider to be in this latter category, Jonathan Franzen, was asked by the New York Times what he considered to be the best thing about writing a book.  His answer?  “The meaning it temporarily lends to my existence.”
Perhaps that meaning really is only subjective, but it is undeniable that an author’s work can change the way people see themselves and alter their understanding of society at large.  In a universe devoid of meaning, maybe this doesn’t matter in the end, but that concept is unlikely to keep novelists from sharing whatever insights they may have.  Novelists with literary aspirations are ultimately trying to changing the world.  Anything less would leave them feeling as though their time on this planet was wasted.  It is through the pursuit of this goal that the novelist finds meaning.  I figure that at the very least this puts me in good company.

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