Have you heard this questions asked of authors in Paris Review or Huffington Post interviews, on reruns of Oprah when she gushed over writers, at readings in bookstores with creaky wooden floors, in a go around at a writing workshop where everyone is sharing stories of their writing like they were talking about their exes? Have you watched Stephen King, Alice Walker, Joyce Carol Oates, John Irving, or some other living legend wax poetic about it on You Tube? Have you asked yourself this in the light of a blank computer screen washing over your oily skin and bloodshot eyes at 3 AM on a weeknight when you have to be out the door for work in another 4 hours? Or at a writing conference with a throng of eager, caffeine-hyped, buzzing, hungry wannabes moving through a hotel hallway to the next session like a swarm of locusts? Or when you reread your journal from 9th grade and realize you’ve been writing about the same issues in the same crapy handwriting for 20, 30 , 40 years? Or at the end (middle, beginning) of a book that makes you salivate and ignore your children and takes your ever loving breath away?
I have tried to answer this question for myself many times but find it nearly impossible to come up with something that doesn’t sound self-indulgent, idiotic or plagiarized. So I’ve started asking myself another question:
Who are you writing for?
Sometimes, like that little boy in The Sixth Sense, I write for dead people. For my mother who was already seeping into my stories before she died and now shows up all the time. For relatives I hardly knew whose lives I have to reconstruct from scattered memories, old photos, overheard gossip. For a few whose suicides have left a hole in the world I would like to fill.
Sometimes I write for my high school classmates so I can attend a reunion with my Pulitzer Prize and my Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. By then most of them will be dead so they will fit into the first category as well.
Sometimes I write for other writers I adore so they will move their collective butts over and say, let this one sit at our table.
But mostly, I write for this girl I know. She is 11, maybe 12. Her hair is straight and cut poorly, bangs falling over the top of thick tortoise shell glasses like a curtain. She wears an oversized sweatshirt – crewneck collar, gunmetal green – it looks like something a janitor would wear. Her body is big, awkward, slumped over in her chair. Her eyebrows are thick, knitting together in a look of confusion, alarm, angst. She is holding a book, and it is the place she goes to be free of everything – her body, her family, her small unremarkable circumstances. This girl is trapped. Paralyzed in a photograph. Voiceless. One of these days, I am going to get her out of there. I am going to find her another way to be free. But meantime, I keep writing. Waiting. Hoping.