Time for yet another installment of Memoir Monday! This week's excerpt from my forthcoming memoir, Chapter One: The Meaning of Life. Enjoy and as usual, any comments appreciated!
Chapter One – The Meaning of Life
Chapter One – The Meaning of Life
I was standing in the kitchen at my parent’s house making a sandwich the first time I remember my mother asking me what I wanted to do with my life. It was the summer after my sophomore year in college and I’d somehow managed to mostly avoid the topic to this point. I’d begun my studies with my major undeclared, explaining that I needed some time to explore my options and discover where my interests and my talents intersected. Now as I spread some mayonnaise across a slice of toasted bread I felt like I was being ambushed. Obviously it wasn’t easy for my mother to ask the question either. Otherwise, why would she spring it on me like this, when my back was turned? I considered an evasive answer, but then after a moment of thought I decided that I might as well tell her the truth. “I think I want to be a writer,” I admitted, turning to face her.
“What?” my mother spat back, eyes opened wide, panic sown across her face. “You can’t do that!”
“Why not?” I was stung. I’d known this idea wouldn’t go over easy, but her reaction was far more severe than anything I’d expected.
“Because…” my mother stammered. “That’s very hard to do.”
“I know it’s hard! I don’t expect it to be easy, but it’s what I want to do! Other people make it as writers, why can’t I?”
“Because, those are other people!”
My heart sank. To have my hopes and dreams repudiated by my very own mother… I’d grown up in a world where children were told that they could achieve anything they dreamed of if they simply set their minds to it and worked hard enough. And here was my mother telling me the exact opposite. It was a complete and utter lack of faith. If even she didn’t believe in me, then who would? Over time I began to understand that she’d rather I take a job that made me miserable than risk failure at something I loved. Not that she wanted me to be miserable, per se. I’m not sure she understood that for me this was the trade off. For my mother, it was about earning enough now, despite the personal cost, to provide stability down the road. It was sacrificing the present for a more secure future. I saw things from a different perspective. How was I to know that the future would even come? What was the point in living if you couldn’t follow your dreams? To me the present was what mattered more than anything. It was the only thing I really had, and I was determined to make the most of it come what may.
My dad had a more hands-off approach when it came to the question of my career choice. He’d been pressured by his own father into a career in medicine, and while he was not dissatisfied with it, he’d always wondered what his life might have been like if he’d followed his own dream to become an architect.
“You don’t want to be an architect!” my grandfather persuaded him. “You’ll just end up designing doorknobs for a living!” My dad never completely got over his own father’s lack of faith. He didn’t want to do the same thing to me. Ironically, my grandfather did have a great respect for art and architecture. When the famous Louis Sullivan-designed Guarantee Insurance building was demolished in their hometown of Buffalo, NY, he went down to the work site and collected as many of the doorknobs as he could salvage, all designed by a young Frank Lloyd Wright. One of these still hangs on the wall as art in my parents’ home. An identical one hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
It should also be noted that my mother had a great respect for books and authors. In fact, she was the owner of a popular children’s bookstore. She hosted authors for readings on a regular basis, but meeting these writers didn’t instill any confidence in her that I might be able to join their ranks. In hindsight I can see that my mom’s fears weren’t altogether unjustified. Chasing this dream would prove to be much, much more difficult than I ever could have imagined. In the ensuing decades I would struggle with rejection and poverty, constantly asking myself if I’d made the right decision. Was living in the present just massively irresponsible, after all? Over time it became clear that choosing to be a writer wasn’t the best career move, but I don’t necessarily feel that it was a choice. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that it was the only choice that I felt I could live with. I was drawn to write and nothing else but full submission would ever satisfy these creative urges. The most important lesson that I did learn from this conversation with my mother was that I couldn’t rely on anybody else to believe in me. Despite this lack of faith from her and countless others, I had to simply believe in myself. As long as I held onto that, I felt sure it could be done.
I’ve always felt that some of the best art comes from a place of bitterness and frustration. The artists themselves have something to say about injustice in the world. They are natural born rebels, fighting back with the only real weapons they have available; their art. It is why repressive political regimes have always considered artists and writers to be at least a little bit dangerous, because they hold the power to inspire change. The best writing is that which challenges our most basic assumptions. Franz Kafka touched on this in a letter he wrote to his friend Oskar Pollak in January of 1904:
Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn't shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we'd be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.
From the writer’s perspective, this instinct to create something that kicks people in the teeth is really born of frustration at what passes for “conventional wisdom.” It comes from a desire to shake people from their stupor. It is a desire to lash out, at the masses, or a certain mindset, or ruling ideology. Maybe happy people write happy novels, as Kafka alludes to, but true artists are inherently unhappy. Inherently frustrated. This frustration and unhappiness is born of suffering, which is the true basis of the human condition. Everyone suffers, but artists channel that suffering into their art, tilting at windmills in an effort to fight back against ignorance and injustice.
When I was in high school I didn’t yet realize that I wanted to be a writer myself, but I did know that books with grand themes and aspirations were those that inspired me. In the early 1980’s, Cold War tensions still ran high. Our assigned reading list included the works of authors who warned of the oppression of totalitarian social systems. George Orwell’s 1984 was a particular favorite of mine, as were Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. These authors had something to say because they saw a potentially dark and dismal future and they wanted to do whatever they could to warn the human race against it. They wanted to smash that frozen sea within all of us before it was too late. These were the authors I considered to be my literary heroes, and I felt like I, too, had that rebellious spirit inside of me. If only I had been born in a different time and place, I’d have been a rebel myself.
As it was, I came into this world as an American in the latter half of the twentieth century, a doctor’s kid in a solidly middle-class California town. As such, everything came easily; a car to drive, nice clothes, an allowance. Family trips to Europe and Hawaii. Growing up I knew nothing of struggle. I had no firsthand knowledge of what it took to really earn these things that I had. Instead there was an expectation that the rules were stacked in my favor. If I played by those rules my future would be more or less assured. I knew that my family would send me to college. I would get an education, graduate after four years and by then my path would be clear. I would fall into a career, get married by 28, have some kids and that would be that. It was just the way the world worked. My world, in any case.
I suppose it was one simple question that actually changed everything for me. 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 didn’t think too much about the class 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 a 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 plumber, for instance, might be very good at cleaning pipes. This ability would pay the bills and afford some respectability in society. It would be of great service to the client, whose pipes needed cleaning, 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 builders. Accountants, pilots and policemen. All provided useful, necessary services. All of them could rightfully take pride in their work. 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 editorial, 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.”
Literature is essential to democracy because abuses of power can only be held in check by a population that is cognizant and aware of those abuses. This is the service that writers can provide. It is why tyrannical governments work so hard to censor the media, 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 socialist 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 on a micro-film to the West, 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 writing is not so overtly political. Even writers considered literary are often 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 commonalities 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 themes of alienation and familial tension.
When I compare a writer like George 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. 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 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 through sharing these insights that their lives are given meaning.
When I chose to pursue a writing career, 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 just as with the other professions I alluded to above, he was 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, it is not. 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 for it.
Looking around at my fellow inhabitants of planet earth, I do wonder how many people actually search for meaning actively. 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 ways large and small. Some find meaning through helping others. Some find it through being successful in whatever is their chosen career.
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. When the novelist Jonathan Franzen was asked by the New York Times what he considered to be the best thing about writing a book, he answered, “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. 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 figured that at the very least this put me in good company. My next question was, what exactly did I actually want to write about myself?