This expands on a late-night phone conversation I had with my stepdad this week, and also dovetails nicely into the concerns of the novella I’ll be writing for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).
Everything I write is a love letter.
Now, my love is cockeyed, harsh, world-weary, and sarcastic but that’s just me showing my love as its negative. If I care about something enough to hate it, or to dig deep into its ambiguities and the uneasiness it makes me feel, then there’s love there, too. Sometimes that love is more straightforward, though I find that writing about what I love unabashedly is much harder than writing about what I’m critical or wary of. This probably says something about me but maybe not me exclusively. After all, what are we as a human race drawn to in our art, from the biblical on up to the present? The darkness, the sin, the complicated yearnings, the suffering, the grace that’s smudged by mud and blood and seen only in glimpses, that’s what. There’s a reason most of us have at least heard of Dante’s Inferno and kinda know what’s in it, but don’t read his Heaven and Purgatory at all—are they even taught in school?
So, maybe it ain’t just me. But that “me” thing is significant, for what has changed for me, over the years, is the direction of my love letters. For most of my writing life, starting from age ten onward, the writing’s been about the love of me. That’s not to say I wrote about myself exclusively—though what writer ultimately doesn’t, in a way? Rather, it was that the intent of my writing, of all my creative life, really, was to showcase the audacity and inventiveness and genius of me. Writing, as good as I could sometimes be, was about what the art could give to me. How can I draw attention, fame, money, girls, and accolades to me through what I wrote? How can my art validate me? Like most young artists, I cared about whether what I was doing was new, unique, and thus something that proved my specialness. I cared about being seen as innovative, as standing apart from the rest of literature.
I don’t know when the shift started, and Lord knows the evolution is still happening, and will probably be happening for the rest of my life. But a shift in me has happened. I didn’t fully realize it until my stepdad mentioned, over the phone, that I should keep heart through being an “unrequited artist.” We were discussing unrequited love in all its forms but I realized, and said, that in fact I was not an unrequited artist. The change began in me within the last five years, at the latest. So, I’m a slow learner.
The shift is simple to say and hard to follow: For me, writing used to concern what my art could give to me, and now I’m much more concerned with what I can give, through my writing, to the world. What solace about the world, or understanding of it, does my modest literature offer up to be used, consumed, and loved? No, I haven’t stopped trying to publish, to get paid for my work, to do good work and get recognized for it. But I no longer imagine writing as a path for my personal glory, and in fact I now find that largely immature and limiting. I want what I do on the page to somehow help someone else. I struggle, now, with getting what I write to radiate love outward, instead of raking love in.
And I can’t tell you how liberating that’s been to my heart, and to my language. We’re all unique miracles, every one of us. Each of us exists because of a one-of-a-kind fusion of sperm and egg that couldn’t happen before and will never happen. From the moment we’re born to our dying breaths, we engage with the world in a way that’s specific to us, and thoroughly unrepeatable. We are unique and new simply by virtue of our existences. That’s a given. So, for me, the endless striving to prove my newness—through writing, through what I wear and how I talk, whatever—is pointless, because that uniqueness is a given. It doesn’t need to be proven and, oddly, that striving for proof of innovation makes us conform to standards that we don’t even believe in. (Remember being a teenager, obsessed with being hip and cool and “different,” and how your “difference” ended up looking just like everyone else’s?) Now, what I think about is how I discover myself through my writing and the ways I can give of myself to the world. By discovering myself, cultivating what’s best in myself, and dealing with—including being compassionate about—what’s worst in me, I’m finding my unique literary voice. I’m finding that voice, though, by losing interest in conforming to or reacting against the voice of others, to critical standards or fashionable styles.
That’s a hard paradox, and I fail to understand it a lot. And that’s OK. Someone once said that your writing style ends up the sum total of all the things you’re not good at, the ways in which you cover up your imperfections. That assumes that there’s an Apollonian ideal of writing style, which I’m not sure I buy, but I still like the idea. I feel a looseness, a sense of conversation, in my writing these days that I didn’t have in my twenties. I feel more comfortable going to dark places, or sexy places, than I did before. Some of that comes from reading. Some of that comes from living with life, with suffering, with gaining love and losing love, and coming back for more. Some of that’s gleaned from a lot of different writers, filmmakers, cartoonists, painters, musicians, and friends (especially friends) but the gleaning and fusing and synthesis of styles and methods is mine and mine alone. I believe that we are all children of God and, as such, are all worthy of love and imbued with love. (We’re all fuckups, too, and that’s a gift from God, too.) So, our capacity for love and creation—and destruction—is a given, and how that capacity manifests itself is unique to each of us. I’ve accepted these things are given, that I’m a Frankenstein’s Monster that’s the only one like me, or that will ever be like me. Cool. Since that’s a given, since that doesn’t need to be proven, what else can my writing do? What else can I do, or be?
Well, I can write love letters. So, I do. I think I always have. The difference is that, now, I’m trying not to write them to myself. Instead, I want to send them out, stamped with blood from my heart and mailed under the wind of my warm breath. And I guess that’s progress.