A blog post by Rebekah Loper, entitled “If You Couldn’t Write…” got me thinking about what would happen if I really, actually couldn’t write.
The heart of Rebekah’s question is really about secondary passions — about how we would fill the time if some mysterious outside force denied us our writing gift. The question itself has some pretty easy workarounds. Gone blind? Record some audio for transcription. Lose both hands? Get prosthetics, or fall back on audio again. So you’ve been stabbed with an icepick behind the earlobe and have a level of brain activity roughly equivalent to a bottle of Flintstone vitamins? Yeah, your writing days are probably over. But you’ve probably got bigger problems anyway, such as bedsores and routinely soiling yourself. Something plenty of writers are well-acquainted with anyway, am I right? High five!
In my experience, the biggest cause of writers not writing is not unhappy accident or cosmic malice, but writers themselves. We’ll come up with any reason not to write, including concocting fanciful scenarios about no longer being able to, especially in the wee hours when that unedited manuscript japes and mocks us like some unholy psychopomp.
But really, this scenario barely exists in life. Helen Keller wrote twelve books, and she was blind, deaf, and born without speech. Of course, the question doesn’t play as well if you frame it as “well, what if your name was Lazy Q. Lazerton from Lazytown, Louisiana and you didn’t write anything because you were a huge bum and spent all day watching Charmed?” Also, if you really couldn’t write, you’d have serious problems just living day-to-day, much less prospering in some other field, because modern life involves signing a lot of legal documents.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t intend this as a criticism of Rebekah by any means. But this question does seem to occur to writers with alarming frequency. That may just be my perception, but it does seem like writers are particularly prone to this hypothetical scenario.
For example, I don’t see people interview Olympic figure skaters and ask “so, say both your legs were shattered like a pair of sausages filled with peanut brittle that someone whaled against the back wall of a Stuckey’s for ten minutes. What would you do?” Probably Kurt Loder never asked Rick Allen, the drummer from Def Leppard, “so, what are you going to do if that other arm comes off? Like, some guy shoots meth into both eyeballs with turkey basters and comes at you with an industrial sander and wears that arm down to a shiny nub? What then, smart guy?”
The cynical part of me wonders if the question doesn’t sometimes spring from a sublimated insecurity: the thought that maybe our time might be better-spent — that we’re often tempted to just hang it up and get a straight job. I have no proof of this. I just know writers can be a fragile lot at times. I say this as some who has actually set his own writings on fire, so believe me when I tell you I’m not projecting.
The “what if you couldn’t write” question is, for me, an oblique way of saying “well, what if your life were totally horrifying?” I’m a storyteller by nature. I have to tell stories. I’ve been known to edit the truth from time to time, not to obfuscate facts or deceive others, but to enhance dramatic symmetry. When I’m not writing, I’m reading. When I’m not reading, I’m playing role-playing games and telling stories that way. When I’m not doing that, I’m watching movies or television and picking them apart. Stories are my life. If I could truly eat, live and breathe stories, then I’d pretty much be Mr. Creosote.
So if someone came along and took that away from me, it’s hard to imagine what I’d be doing with myself. Probably making Youtube videos dubbing voices over my cats and pretending they’re wacky roommates in a 1980s sitcom. But see, that doesn’t sound as good as “I’d become a child psychologist” or “I’d manufacture wheelchairs for injured Olympic figure skaters.”
I guess what I’m saying is: I’m glad I can write, because I’m pretty sure I’d miss it.
1. Yes, I mean lying.