I was recently at a writers’ conference where a fellow author said to me, “Oh, I hate writing. I’d quit if I could.” I thought it was a funny statement, but also sad. Why would anyone give their time to a pursuit that they don’t love? Just because a story presents itself to you doesn’t mean you have to tell it. As author Matthew Quick writes in his YA novel, Every Exquisite Thing, “Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you have to do it.”
For me, the word — both written and read — has long been a joy. I’ve lived in books. I believe I’ve loved fictional characters (both of my own creation and others) sometimes more deeply, more completely, than I’ve loved actual people.
There was Kip, the Sihk bomb defuser from The English Patient. I’m not ashamed to say I loved him. And I love Michael Ondaatje for writing him. George Emerson from A Room With a View is both one of the great loves of my life and my spirit animal. We all need a George Emerson who runs into the countryside shouting, “Beauty!” and pulling us along in his thrall. And thanks to E.M. Forester, we can all visit George anytime we like. Theo Decker — lover of antiques and accidental stealer of art from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch — I loved him, too. And not because he was sexy or clever or age-appropriate, but because his brokenness and obsessiveness felt akin to my own. It’s good to find kindred spirits.
I don’t recall ever not loving books. I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t travel with a book, or sleep with books by my bed. I’m a fan of ebooks, too — I don’t have to feel the page to know I’m reading — but there is something friendly about a volume. It’s tactile, yes. But it also contains the magic of a hidden world within its binding. That we can go through life in possession of such miraculous objects casts enchantment over day-to-day monotony.
I’m sure I came to writing in part due to my love of reading. I know I felt a kind of rightness among words. In fiction, lives aren’t necessarily tidy or fully realized, but they’re examined. They’re contemplated. Even in the violence and lostness, there’s poetry. There’s a revelation in the human spirit.
I read to understand people better, to travel, to explore, to inquire. I write to excavate. I sometimes think that I don’t know what I feel until I write it down. So if I know anything at all about love, it’s the characters in my own fiction who have schooled me. This is something Bryn says in How to Talk to Rockstars — I think it’s terribly romantic. I could never say this in person, because I’m not that smooth, but I did type it once:
“Dance me. My feet on your feet if we have to do it that way. But don’t be gentle with me because my god I’m tired of this kid gloves approach to living. Break me with your softness. Wound me with your kindness, your sweet heart, your clean soul.”