Read Old Man Scanlon

Notes on Why I Write

05 February 2012

Kids, Balfour Park

Like the certainty of being hanged, a heart attack should concentrate one's mind. Yet I had failed for years to act on such an unmistakable signal that my life was no longer an infinite resource. That I finally did act I credit to the arrival of my three grandchildren. I should have guessed that as a truly life-changing force they'd trump a paltry heart attack, but my puny imagination failed utterly to prepare me for the electric joy and gratitude they have brought me. It was they who catalyzed sundry half-baked ideas racing about in my subconscious that finally betrayed themselves when I heard myself saying, "I'm pretty sure I could write a book—if only I had something to say." With the advent of grandchildren, the planets aligned; time and tide were optimum.

My tiny grandson invariably responded "Talk about it!" to my initial terse answers to his unending questions about the world and how it works. He gave me a bottomless supply of opportunities for things to say; why shouldn't I write them down? The question now became, could I really write? Assessing my chances of success, I ran a cursory personal inventory: I don't believe I've had an original idea in my life, I'm self-centered, linear in thought, and literal-minded. These, I think, go a long way to explain why I write non-fiction. I'm about to elaborate, so now's your best chance to bail out and cut your losses.

Accurate or not, my assessment offered no insurmountable barriers to writing, but I hate to rush, and so procrastinated some more. Then I trotted out the usual bromides: write about what you know, this is your best shot at immortality of any kind, this will be your gift, a legacy to your grandchildren. Trite and presumptuous, an unbeatable combination. I started to write.

Talk about it. I discovered that college-age people power a goodly chunk of the burgeoning internet literary market; they edit, write for, and read more journals than you can shake a stick at. Though these writers flaunt unbounded energy and enthusiasm I couldn't help thinking, "But they have so little experience; what can they write about?" The answer became obvious: "They can write fiction and poetry. They can write about anything they want—they have imagination." I don't have the luxury of an untrammeled imagination. I need the concreteness of my vast if mundane experience; hence, nonfiction.

Talk about it. I do have a cheap mechanical ability to manipulate symbols—like doing crossword puzzles in pen and involuntarily forming anagrams of the random word snagged out of the corner of the eye. I hold this skill in slight regard, tending to think of it as an accident of brain wiring. But it wouldn't surprise me to learn some day that it's connected to a writing gene.

Talk about it. Never did I have a precocious epiphany when I knew I had to be a writer or suffer and die trying, though there were glimmers. As a youth I read voraciously and managed to rack up a truly obnoxious vocabulary and develop a keen eye for spelling mistakes. My Early American Lit prof required us to present chapter summaries of The Scarlet Letter, with commentary; one guy accused me of stealing mine from a real writer. Much later, the woman who would become my wife invited me to a Catskills resort's "word weekend" for what we later recognized as our first date. Looking back beyond the cluelessness I see a certain inevitability in this sequence, but I still feel like a dilettante, lacking as I do a direct divine command, or even an MFA.

Talk about it. Except for math, my major, I was pretty good in school. A favorite professor, Bernard Howard, told me, "You give the impression of being dumb as hell, but you're a fooler." So I knew I had some talent, but did I have enough? More importantly, did I have the wherewithal to overcome my habitual sloth? To find out, eventually I would have to just write, and test myself against the world.

Talk about it. My reserved New England family is neither physically nor verbally touchy-feely, and I'm a male introvert. How many strikes is that? The miracle is I'm not dealing with a textbook case of full-blown alexithymia. I can write without qualms things I should but never would say in person. I want people to read what I write, but I'm embarrassed when they do. The tension helps me balance.

Talk about it. I'm a newbie writer, yet easily twice, going on three times, my editors' ages. Over the years my priorities have crystallized. I've learned rudimentary discretion. I'm more sure of my tastes, less sure about the big questions. Even if you don't actively seek adventure, drama, and novelty, over time things are bound to happen to you that you may not anticipate, let alone plan for. You divorce, lose jobs, bury parents. You get sick and deal with infirmity and indignity. All of these ordinary run-of-the-mill occurrences form you. In the forge you'll be hammered, quenched, and annealed to toughness. Your writing will be influenced. There's no way to avoid it.

But this is self-indulgent navel-gazing. Enough's enough.