The Writing Life Emilio DeGrazia

Emilio DeGrazia

(A presentation delivered at the Institute for Theological and Interdisciplinary Studies, St. Paul, Minnesota, March 17, 2017. Updated, March, 2021)

My website [no longer in existence] officially named “The Writing Life” lives a lonely life somewhere out there in the dark web. In a time when (to use Yeats’ words), “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” I prefer to have my writing life both ways. Because so many millionaires don’t pay taxes, I’ve lost faith that the only certainties are taxes and death, and I’m also uncertain about the public value of my writing life. I live with a mind clogged merely with possibilities, and with probabilities both hopeful and hopeless. So as a label “The Writing Life” has a one-size-fits-all categorical imperative to it, a prescription to be swallowed whole rather than savored. We all know there are many ways of life, some rather lifeless, and one lively enough we could call “A Writing Life.”
I am one of literally millions who presume to have something to say in print. I have written almost every day for more than forty years, and several small press books have my name on them. I have twelve more unpublished book-length manuscripts, devoutly revised, sitting like lonely widowers in my attic. My wife Monica and I also have co-edited several other books and anthologies. So I write, I have written, and I will write, even though teaching has paid the bills, and an occasional editing job helps a little. My last book, Eye Shadow, five years old now, has maybe sold 100 copies. All my books are at the top of the Least Seller list in my mind.
Now and then a student asks, “How can I make money as a writer?” My reply: “Learn how to write really effective ransom notes.”
To embark on a writing life is to set sail rather tranquilly on the proverbial sea of troubles. What a writer faces is the wreckage of a century or more—its horrendous wars, plagues, and other miseries, all of them with their post-traumatic debris still present, often submerged, and largely unavoidable. Our new technologies—from cable to cellphone, from auto to spaceship, from rifle to H-bomb, from newspaper to internet—make troubles more alluring, accessible, and confusing than the quiet moments a writer faces when staring at the blank page. Consciousness is easily scattered, if not shattered, by awareness of our past. The fragmentation pulls us in two directions at once: Toward distancing and distraction, and toward what Wallace Stevens called “The Sacred Rage for Order.” It perhaps takes a combination of whimsy and courage to put a message into a bottle and to heave it into the debris of our last hundred years.
For me the rage for order I hope my little bottles convey is only privately sacred, satisfied in two basic ways necessary, I believe, to a well-lived life: Epiphany and myth. Epiphany we know as a Christian festival celebrated on January 6, the twelfth day of the New Year, a renewal season associated with Christmas. But the term also refers to a sudden intuition or revelation of meaning, or spontaneous insight, radiant, that arrests us with awe. Though our words seldom do an epiphany justice, we always regret allowing one to slip away without trying to find words.
The other satisfaction I require is myth. By myth I don’t mean a fictional story easy to associate with what’s so unreal as to be merely made-up and therefore synonymous with foolish fantasy. Mythos, in Greek, merely means “story,” but let’s call it a definitive narrative––a life story, a his-story and her-story, a series of events told sequentially that conveys a meaningful theme. We have deep needs, I think, for narratives that make sense to us, that we can believe in, and that we can find ourselves in. We are also hungry for narratives, aglow with epiphanies, that sequence and contextualize their radiances.
This need for myth, for narrative connection, is painfully felt in an era of broken myths. In our culture the once dominant Biblical myths have been challenged by Darwin and common sense, and made even more incredible by Biblical literalists. A lot of our youth aren’t buying into them. The myth of the American Dream, the one that once upon a time gave hope to millions, agonizes under the influence of profiteering and corrupt leadership. When public myths fail to satisfy, they fail to unify.
I try to keep some bottom lines visible when I dare to lift my pen. (I do write with a pen.) One is that I am both a mirror and lamp. That is, my obligation as a writer is to reflect, at least as accurately as a mirror would, some aspect of the world’s real facts and circumstances, tell some sort of truth about them with precision. The other is a recognition that as a “lamp” I am expressing myself, inclined to make the story all about me. So I am at once subject and object, observer and the observed. How well these roles combine is dependent on how well I balance their claims. Do I care about the world “out there” enough to let me express it over the objections of my other self, the one driven by passions such as resentment, despair, lust, ambition, love, fear and wishful thinking? How do I convey inconvenient truths while communicating what I honestly think and feel about a subject?
These questions trouble me. I have a hungry mind inclined to ask questions like this, and so do you or you would not have followed my words here right now. My writing life is based on a deep need to know, and to base what I’m compelled to write on what I begin to understand and believe, perhaps only through the writing process. *
My writing life––how did it begin? My parents came to the U.S. in 1936 from a small and very poor village in southern Italy. Italian immigrants in their day, and even recently, were called “wops,” “dagos,” and “guineas,” the latter label likening them to “blacks.” Neither of my parents attended school except for a few days now and then. But there was a lot of talk in our house––especially at the dinner table. Emilio was my first name at first, Italian was my only language, and English came along when I was allowed outside the house. The only book in the house was a Bible written in Italian, until a salesman talked my parents into buying a set of Compton’s Picture Encyclopedia. I spent hours looking at the pictures in those volumes, awestruck, again and again, by a full-page shot of the A-bomb dropped on Japan. When, in the first grade, the teacher wrote “Emil” on the blackboard, I didn’t know “Emil” stood for me. “Emil” was somebody else in my teacher’s mind. It took decades for me to become known again as “Emilio.”
The power––and weakness––of language became known to me years later in a college freshman English class. In an essay entitled “The Gift of Tongues,” Clyde Kluckhorn, a linguistic anthropologist, wrote something I found hard to believe: “You can’t say in Chinese, ‘Answer me yes or no,’ for there aren’t words for yes and no. Chinese gives priority to ‘how’ and non-exclusive categories. European languages to ‘what’ and exclusive categories.” Black and white, right and wrong, good and evil, and noun and verb are exclusive categories.

That we perhaps therefore think in either-or, black and white and good and evil terms because our language inclines us that way makes me wonder about the very language my writing life depends on. Does the English language require processes (a noun such as “weather”) and even “things” (a noun such as “ocean”), to remain static even though they are in motion, behaving as verbs? Is our current political/religious polarization in part a function of how our language writes––and wrongs––our lives? If my writing life depends on a language that is structurally biased against many of my perceptions, am I wasting my life?
If I want to help the world reshape itself should I have become a painter or film-maker instead? When I walk into the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence and see a “devil” painted in bright colors on the wall, I walk out having a strong picture in my mind I may not ever rid myself of because the picture is so vivid and “real.” That picture perhaps has become fixed as a stereotype and cultural norm for thousands who have visited the Baptistry. It makes the “devil” “real” for many of them, and has profound cultural influence. Images on walls command attention because they stand still, but those contrived in motion picture scenes may be even more powerful. The Exorcist, a movie that seems tame by contemporary standards of Hollywood horror productions, increased public belief in the devil by 21%, according to a Gallop Poll taken when the movie was popular across the nation.
Because of its inherent liabilities writing makes special demands on the process of creative invention. The word “devil” written in ink on a piece of paper appears to a non-reader as black splotches like those on a Rorschach Test. To gain standing in our minds the word requires a reader to impose an imaginative construction on it. As readers and writers we infiltrate our words with our musings, and attach their images to the black splotches we make on paper. Many of those images are derived from other forms of art. The ink splotches ask us to invent a “devil,” and to accord it with images already in our minds, even if no such thing as a devil exists in the real world. It is difficult to free oneself of the prejudices language and its cultural associations may create in us. When I see a dark-skinned man walking my way, I’m likely to call him a “black” rather than a “man.” The words writers choose, consciously or not, shape how they, and their readers, see the world.
Language’s inherent weaknesses are why it’s so hard to make sense of things, and why so many people, living uncomfortably with the uncertainty of probabilities, prefer the certainty of beliefs that are often unbelievable. The passionate need for certainty, call it also the need for truth and emotional security, collides with the writing life conscious of language’s liabilities. Thus writing is a complex, untidy process, especially since there are so many words free-floating in minds careless about their own functions. If words can lead us so easily by the nose, why learn to read? Or, if it’s too late to unlearn, why read? Or why read a lot of books? Why not let one Good Book alone be our guide—and be done with it? Why complicate things? Simplify, simplify, simplify said Henry David Thoreau in Walden, one of his thick books. Return to Nature, said Wordsworth in all his books. Apply Windex to the language window and pretend to wipe clean. Then go to a football game and scream your brains out.
Is there anyone here who says no, or yes, to this? We want to believe in the probability that poetry, novels, histories, and memoirs––books, even when read privately––are important ways of developing a mature and conscious understanding of the world.
An image that came to me rather late in life is that languages are windows standing between me and a world teeming with the facts of life. The windows may be frosted, tinted, transparent, dirty, broken, or artfully inlaid with colorful stained glass. But they inevitably refract our experience of life. Language, that which is in us and that which we hear, both filters and transforms our experiences. So we all see through language windows, more or less darkly. This wonderful and strange process is complicated by the fact that we are at once subjects and objects in motion, never stepping, as both subjects and objects, in the same stream twice. So through language the world is at once filtered and fluid in ways that can be very complex and confusing, if we give our thoughts some thought. When I, as a writer, write words on a page I want them to authorize a perception, and a reader expects the words to provide grounding, a sort of certainty. Now and then both writer and reader come away satisfied, often forgetting that the book, with all its words, is a window in motion too, moving us as we are moved.
We’ve all come back to the same book twenty years later and seen something, more or less, we didn’t see the first time through. Some books we grow out of, and some we come to understand in a new way. “A good book,” said Lionel Trilling (a writer), “reads us.” After I spent the better part of my life learning how to read, I realized that Moby-Dick, for example, is in part a book about how to “read” a whale. Only then did I begin to see how Melville’s book “reads” me. We move on as we are moved.
Moby-Dick is a long and sad wail of a tale about, in part, a whale’s tail, and we all love a story. So let me begin a story, a very short history. In the beginning was a grunt––a strange sound that caused someone to smile and ask for more grunts until over a long space of time a set of grunts flowered into the many languages now spoken on earth. That grunt initiated what we could call The Age of the Spoken Word. This age is by far the longest era in the history of humanity, and the spoken word was the major means of communication for millennia until, let’s say, the year 1440 A.D., about the time the printing press was invented. Yes there were books before the printing press, but precious few, and only a few people, often very powerful male members of priesthoods, could claim they knew how to decode them. The ancient Greeks and Romans, and the People of the Book––Jews, Christians, and Muslims––developed their belief systems and institutions at the end of the Age of the Spoken Word, basing their beliefs, institutions and politics on understandings derived from meanings coded in a fairly small number of special manuscripts and books.
This Age of the Spoken Word also lent itself to story-telling, most of it face to face. In those primitive thousands of years people had to face each other within hearing distance in order to be understood. And they often met in groups. They could agree or disagree in person, or sit quietly while hearing actual spoken words. And once spoken these words disappeared forever into the surrounding white noise, unless they were snared by memory, that thing in our head that tricks and abandons us. Poets came along, offering themselves as priests and historians, as depositories of traditions, lore and norms. Poets memorized the memorable, and they became “books” personified. One poet named “Homer,” for example, is said to have written The Iliad and The Odyssey. Don’t bet on it. Very probably there were many nameless Homers, who memorized versions of the story of Troy and retold it, from memory and therefore no doubt with revisions, for the five hundred years between 1180 BCE, the approximate date when the historic siege of Troy took place, and 700 BCE, when the first written accounts appear on parchment. There, on that parchment, 500 years of fluid memorization was frozen as print on pages. That parchment is one of our main windows into the world of ancient Greece. Is it any wonder that so much about Achilleus, Helen, and Paris is Greek to us, and that the “great hero” Odysseus was maybe once not considered so great, given that his name is derived from the Greek word for “odious”?
Chapter Two of my little history we might call the Age of the Book. Let’s say this chapter runs from the first printing press in 1440 to 1990, or roughly 560 years. During this period books, and the increasing number of people who learned to read, had a major influence on how culture, religion, and politics turned out. My writing life began in the first grade, at the very tail end of the Age of the Book, when I didn’t know someone was trying to make an “Emil” of me on the blackboard.
The Age of the Book died young when it collided head-on with what is now Chapter Three, the Digital Age—and here, rather suddenly, we are, enmeshed in the world-wide web. The irony is that never before have we had so many books as now, and so many Digital Age writing lives. In 1989 about 45,000 books were published in the U.S., but 1,052,803 books were published in the U.S. in 2009, triple the number published just four years earlier in 2005. Add to these astounding numbers the fact that in 2013 alone 458,564 books with official ISBN numbers were self-published, with unknown thousands more self-published books in print without ISBN numbers. By 2017 the total number swells to 1,350,000 newly published books, with more than one million self-published books with ISBN numbers appearing, an increase of 28% over 2016. It seems impossible to know how many self-published books without ISBNs also exist, though the world-wide web informs us that in 2010 there were 129,864,880 published books worldwide. In the Digital Age we are experiencing a chain reaction explosion of writing episodes, and each episode comes from a writing life of some sort.
This explosion offers unprecedented options for poetic writing lives. The recent proliferation and decentralization of poetry writing (if not reading) may be seen as a blessing that offers literally hundreds or thousands of opportunities for writers of poetry to express themselves. It may also be seen as a problem that is leading to the subversion and invisibility of honored poetic forms. Clearly, the contemporary poetic writing life is coming at some cost for most. More and more poetry journals charge submission fees, and only a few pay for what they publish. Free verse comes with a cost, mainly to poets these days.
Meanwhile, Whitman’s dream of poetry as widespread leaves of grass on democratic landscapes is being realized. David Alpaugh, in “The New Math of Poetry” [The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 21, 2010] finds the growth of poetry “stunning.” Today there are more than 2,000 poetry markets, with about one new journal, both print and on-line, being born each day, and with more than 100,000 poems published each year. Will anthologists cull the very best and make them definitive examples by which a writing life may anchor itself?

Were a conscientious anthologist of this year’s poetry to spend just 10 minutes evaluating each published poem, he or she would need to work 16,666 hours, which means it would take eight years to assess the eligible poetry for a 2010 anthology. If the current rate of growth continues, an anthologist trying to do that in 2100 will spend 141 years reading what promises to be that year’s minimum of 1,760,750 published poems.
Faced with this runaway math, we should not be surprised to find editors abandoning their noble search for the best poetry available, in favor of more practical, defensive selection strategies. [Alpaugh].

What results are special focus anthologies likely to appeal to special interest groups.
Meanwhile, book industry sales are in serious decline, independent bookstores are almost extinct, and book prices on-line undercut retail book sales, lowering their value as commodities. Commercial publishers and literary agents are more wary and difficult to access than ever, and their eyes are focused on bottom lines. Today a published book has less than 1% chance of being stocked in a bookstore or library. With hungry minds we walk into the book section of a thrift store and are overwhelmed by so many fifty cent choices we become like the centipede who, when he was asked which leg he first moved, became a cripple.
Given these numbers a writer’s chances of being published, or self-published, are improved, though rejection is the norm. Frequent rejection is an emotional fact that may profoundly affect the writing life, and rejection comes more intensely when readers, often friends and colleagues, ignore a published work. So why not perfect the art of the ransom note? Why not Facebook instead, and die tweeting? Why bother with books at all?
A lot of our young people, wholly given to their digital devices, are not even asking this question. We, children of the People of the Book, saw the printing press as a remarkable “progress” achievement that liberated people from the hierarchical authority of priests. Protestants believed it was vital to read their personal Bibles and find their religion via the agency of their private minds. Books, many believed, could help us make us democratic and reasonable, entertain us, and show us how-to. In short, when the book, as an invention, became the fashionable norm, it was supposed to expand individual consciousness, empower science and universities, and ground politics, religion and culture on a rather unnatural process, the ability to read and write words. Ironically, book progress in the Digital Age is trending toward the privatization of consciousness. In making sense of words on a page we also talk, perhaps mainly, to ourselves, even as more and more of us feel the urge to speak out on digital devices.
In the unquiet sweep of history the communication act, for thousands of years a social process based on speech, has become commodified and commercialized. Most of us read books on the best seller lists mainly because they are the most aggressively and expensively marketed. The mass of other books are like the millions of lost souls described in the Book of Revelation—left behind.
It is here, asea in the swelling tides of book production, that the writing life swims, sinks or treads water. A “successful” writer, one who satisfies the expectations of a commercial publisher, or more humbly the one who meets the production costs of non-commercial publishing, must make commerce part of the writing life. Book “launches” and readings, media appearances, and active digital “presence” are necessary functions of the financially viable writing life. The writer is expected to be a salesperson, and it helps to be young and good looking. Those who avoid or reject the salesperson role as a necessary function of the Digital Age writing life are very likely to rise to the top of Least Seller lists. They’ll be speaking mainly to themselves in print. On the other hand, writers who act as salespersons too may find their writing time shrunk, and their purposes for writing obeying the demands of the marketplace rather than the muse.
Nevertheless, it seems clear that the book, during the 560 year Age of the Book, shaped politics, religion, science, and culture in major ways. As we grouped ourselves into nations, we developed national literatures, or “canons”—a hierarchy of books deemed “classic” and definitive: Required reading for children and adults. We looked to experts–critics, academics, and the politically engaged to authorize acceptable reading lists. These experts were often distanced from marginalized groups, those most likely to benefit from reading more books. Today school textbook selection is heavily influenced by politically active committees in Texas and California, which have the largest markets for textbooks, most of them produced by big corporate publishers. Forty-eight states follow their Texan and Californian leaders.
While some canons have been seen as necessary to the education of educated elites and champions of empires and creeds, they also have been partially responsible for starting actual fires. The Bible and Koran, and their literary offshoots, are the most notorious examples. Now these canons are coming under fire, even as their extremist devotees firebomb each other. Today postmodern critics and other ethnic and religious groups also see each other’s canons as parochial expressions of prejudice. In the Digital Age all canons are suspect, subject not to peer review but to often nameless internet attacks. The very notion that some books are enduring and definitive has lost viability. Very few students today, for example, are required to read a “classic” such as The Scarlet Letter, and to use it as a way of discussing the moral implications of adultery, religion, and social responsibility. The Bible and Shakespeare (and maybe a sanitized Homer) persist as celebrity cultural classics, but their uses reflect biases for the celebrity of these works. We all think we know something about Moses, Jesus, Achilles, and Hamlet, but very few of us can name two neighbors who know the first thing about Titania or Othello, or who have read Leviticus, or who can explain why Hera is so angry at Zeus. Today instead we tend to go on mostly solitary journeys into books, and we have millions to choose from as we struggle to define and coalesce our various identities.
While some keep insisting on a common core curriculum of books (and language) as necessary to national unity and identity, it also has become obvious that minorities, women, and the minimally lettered are not necessarily in tune with the lessons of the curriculum and often feel alienated from and oppressed by it. The values and standards based on traditional required reading lists are now seen as a blessing or curse by different identity groups. Writers in any era and nation have been subjected to “political correctness” questions, and today’s writing life cannot ignore the social issues inspired by politicized differences of opinion about gender, skin color, ethnicity and sexuality. For understandable reasons identity groups that have been socially and economically excluded, marginalized and oppressed are asserting their right be literary presences. These groups are creating their own literary magazines, their own literary criticism standards, their own literary personalities and professorships. Their many “voices” are being expressed in unprecedented ways. Because all art has political resonance, it is reasonable to expect politically engaged writers to claim a piece of cultural turf for their party members.
A writing life has to achieve balance on the uncertain grounds of this cultural shift. While gifted writers can control polemic urges in the interests of art, those same writers face the question of whether their work will be valued per se, or because it is an expression of their personal identities and party loyalties. A writing life that seeks to validate itself via public funding and grant opportunities is not immune from the demands of identity groups deemed marginalized. Public arts grant programs, often the only financially viable way to momentarily subsidize a writing life, often require writers to identify themselves by gender, “race,” ethnicity, age and location. These categories imply favoritism. One writer I know who sought grant support to complete a work about a young woman trying to understand love and sexuality offers a perhaps typical example of how the judging of writing is done. Tell me why, wrote a panelist for a state arts program, why a male “is best suited to explain how young women feel about love and sexuality? With the current socio-political events, this presents as out-of-touch.” A writing life today requires a realistic recognition that acceptance or rejection or publication of work routinely depend not on the artistic integrity of the work but on an author’s group affiliation or accident of birth. The authenticator of writing often is not critically examined and subject to impartial artistic standards. Writers with an eye toward commercial success also need to consider these trends as they consider supply and demand.
For writers trying to keep in touch with social-political realities these trends pose troubling questions that invite complex responses. A conscious writing life normally requires that writers not be out of touch with self-evident political reality: That women, ethnic, class and sexuality minority groups are unequally—and often unfairly—represented in a literary culture historically dominated by “white males,” even as many literary journals, many of them rather new, now feature the work of identity specific voices. A contemporary writing life requires acknowledgement that the publishing industry and academic literary establishment in the West have been driven by white male, and class biases. Under these circumstances, how does a serious writer respond to the insistence that an author’s identity should be the major authenticator of a writer’s work, and to the obvious fact that many males have written poorly about male experiences, and that many women have written about love, romance and marriage in ways that upset literary critics and feminists?
The larger question is both whether and how a writer’s identity as a member of a class or group affects the creative process. Is one required to be a veteran of war in order to write a credible work about war, or may participation in a war cripple a writer’s ability to write about war? Can research, study, and observation validate in a way personal experience does not? Does a writer’s empathy—the ability to understand and feel outside the self—crucially matter? If not, then should women be purged from Hemingway, and such figures as Joe Christmas and Dilsey be dismissed as phony constructs of a southern male, and “white,” sensibility? Should males be redacted from the works of Jane Austen and the Brontes? Because women are minor presences in Melville’s Moby-Dick, should that book be disqualified as a major classic? Are a writer’s life and work synonymous, or is the work as an imaginative construct often more culturally authentic than a person’s genetics and life experiences?
It’s fair to say that other minorities have had to confront the same problem, and in more trying circumstances, and that under-represented voices deserve legitimacy and presence. It is also fair to say that a writing life, its artistic value and authenticity, should not be held hostage to the polemics of identity.
One upside to the disintegration of cultural canons created during the Age of the Book is the democratization of opinion. Those outside the cultural norms established by so-called classics and other required reading lists now have a chance to establish the value of their diverse identities. But democratization has a potential downside too. If all people are created equal, all are (and should be) given the equal opportunity to express their opinion––including the opinion that all opinions are equal. This proposition leads to the troubling premise that all professional and artistic standards are relative and “equal.” Thus claims about “fake news” are validated by belief, not facts. As a technology the printing press centralized authority in institutions that found literacy useful. In the Digital Age, authority is diverse, worldwide and contentious—some would say “democratic” too. The professionalism, expertise and research we expect of it lurks invisibly in the ether, up for grabs in the noplace of cyberspace.
So why write? Why get up almost every morning and sit in the same chair waiting for ink marks to appear on a blank page? Because we are blessed, and cursed, with a faculty that has the power to transform our lives. This faculty has no Ph.D. It’s called, loosely, imagination—the image-making power we link to the word “creativity,” one of our favorite words to use carelessly.
We refer to “creativity” and “art” a lot, mainly vaguely, and they can make trouble for us. For example, “art,” seldom confused with its family member words “artifice” and “artificial,” can make us terrified of devils that do not exist. Or it can make us feel good by taking us on fanciful trips away from daily troubles and facts, or by seducing us to fall in love with unrealistic flowers that never wilt or die. It can distract us from what we need to address if we are to survive, hold us in thrall to that which “entertains,” that is, that which amuses us while it holds, arrests, us. Art can be manipulated ingeniously for purposes that do us no good. For every half-hour of TV network news, for example, “art” provides us with twelve minutes of ads, each ad calculated to distract us from what we think is important news of the day. An old man of fifty who has watched one hour of TV every day has spent 101 whole 24 hour days watching ads, or 303 eight-hour days, or a total of 288,000 ads. One analyst (Walker-Smith) claims, “we’ve gone from being exposed to about 500 ads a day back in the 1970’s to as many as 5,000 ads a day today,” many of them digital. These ads are directed at our “imaginations.” Most are effective or they would not exist, and we also are “entertained” by them, that is held in their grip, even as words, and books, lose their influence. They are so pervasive that it’s arguable that entertainment, not Fords and GM trucks, is our major gross domestic product, and that the products provided us by Las Vegas, Hollywood and Madison Avenue, financed by Wall Street, have created the opaque, engrossing, clever, and “artistic” picture windows through which we, as Americans and human beings, are expected to find ourselves. How much time, money, and grief do we expend trying to live up to the images in the ads we see? Do they shape our writing lives?
So why do I write? I am not immune to the lure of vanity. I’ve believed in the ads for literature developed during the Age of the Book. We were told that certain writers are “great.” Why not believe that greatness may exist in a book you’ve written? So why not be a great writer, a reality star, like a president? If a poor immigrant can become an American millionaire, why can’t a son of Italian immigrants become a best-selling millionaire, and famous too? Have I dreamt like this, at least more than once, only to find that after the writing was finally done with me the book felt dull and inadequate in my hands, and that my book, now published, was open to public view, and, horrors!––with my name on it. Now and then I recall the New York Yankee Billy Martin’s unkind words about the Metrodome, the sports center named after Hubert H. Humphrey: “I don’t like that Metrodome,” said Billy Martin. “It’s a shame a great guy like Humphrey had to be named after it.”
So why did I write all those years, why do I continue to write, and why, now and then, push another book into a world overcrowded with books, especially now when attention spans have gone digital? Yes, there is ego satisfaction in completing a work, saying yes, I did it, even as the sense of accomplishment fades. And nervous fears kick in at the moment a book goes, mainly invisibly but nakedly, public. I console myself with reminders that the process rather than the product is what matters by far, that every first word on a first page is a quiet act of both arrogance and courage, a journey into the largely unknown. I have a hungry mind, not unlike the minds of the people who once upon a time wandered into a bookstore called The Hungry Mind not far from where I am sitting now. The unknown pulls me toward what is not well understood, and I have an urge to give what I discover some shape and desirability, so I may make it a living part of myself. Much of what I have written reflects our troubled times––our wars, politics, mental illness, immigration, sexuality, religion––and the process of writing has helped me clarify my personal sense of these issues. Have my words changed the world for the better? Not much. Maybe a tiny bit here and there, and only a tiny bit, mainly by creating a mainly imagined solidarity with those who share my views.
Do I sound religiously corny if I say my writing life seeks to satisfy a spiritual need? It’s not a sectarian need, but it is, I think, a common one, largely unsatisfied by the commodification of imagination linked to the products offered by Las Vegas, Hollywood, and Madison Avenue. Many of the writers who produced our millions of books perhaps feel a similar need. Many are on quests to discover meanings only imagination can reveal to them.
I refer here to a special type of imagination, our image-making power hungry to make sense of realities, the nag that insists on seeing clearly, systemically, and sympathetically. Now and then I’m actually awake enough to notice that life’s miracles are routinely passing me by. Now and then my imagination arrests them, and me. Then I have a chance to glimpse what I’ve not seen clearly enough. The destitute drunk on the streets, the teenager with glazed eyes, the sewer pipe, the woman in the bed next to me, the politician’s face as he thinks twice––imagination allows me to picture them, make their stories come alive for me. When operating at its highest level it enters its subjects, gets to their core, assumes their voices, and sees through their eyes.
The poet John Keats explains Shakespeare’s achievement for us. “It at once struck me,” said Keats, “what quality went to form a Man of Achievement in Literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously––I mean Negative Capabilty.” This Negative Capability Keats spoke of is the rare ability to achieve sympathetic understanding of otherness. This ability allows a writer to enter others great and small, show them from the inside, even as the writer remains the outsider who is directing the show, like a little god.
So who is this William Shakespeare, who on his tomb instructs us to let his bones, as markers of his name, rest in peace? Think of Juliet’s words when she speaks of Romeo. They might be Shakespeare’s words too:

Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

So what did William Shakespeare do? He took his characters and made little stars of them.
So who is he? William Shakespeare is Hamlet, to be and not to be; and he is Lear, the wounded old man; and he is Iago, scheming; and Falstaff, the drinking lunk full of mead and wit; and he is Lady Macbeth, daring her husband to stick it to her; and he is Rosaline; and Bottom, and Titania and Oberon; and he is both Romeo and Juliet, and Friar Lawrence, and Prince Hal and crippled Richard, and he is servants and murderers. He is, of course, none of them, and he is at once all of them. And all the while he is merely Will Shakespeare, a solid middle class man, who had it in him to be both nobleman and democrat, while being fairy, weird sister, and Puck.
When I’m writing poorly I lack Negative Capability. I’m a know-it-all omniscient narrator with an arrogant tone, like this. I think I’m smart enough to be smarter than the next, and certainly the current (in 2019), President of the U.S.A. When I’m writing poorly I am not entering my subject matter, trying to understand it sympathetically from within. When I’m writing poorly I lack compassion.
So here we are, throwing out little message bottles out into the debris all around, our words concentrated and privatized in them, all of us clinging to the belief we have a story to tell that’s worth living by. William Blake’s words come to mind: “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.” As our Digital Age sends us into the bottomless labyrinths of cyberspace, many writers persist. They turn inward to their small selves to search for and to form the epiphanies and myths––call them “systems” too––that bring some meaningful radiance to their lives. They hope to share this radiance, go public, publish it. I can think of no better way to go. That’s why I have a writing life.