Why Writing Is a Foolish Pleasure

06/15/2011 02:11 pm ET | Updated Aug 15, 2011

Who would have thought it? To live a life of words spilling out of the mind, out of the heart onto the page and into the eyes of invisible strangers. Who would have thought to spend the best hours of your day wrapped up in yourself, by yourself, with the rest of the world entirely oblivious of your very existence? No words spoken to anyone but yourself, and then often no more than a sporadic expletive; getting down a wonderful sentence only to see all the holes in it less than an hour later.

But which writer would have it any other way? There are probably those who would kill for the privilege. Solitude is the lot, the joy and the cross of the writer. But true solitude is not lonely. It is being with oneself, alone unto oneself, and in that aloneness, one can feel the filaments that join each of us to the world. This kind of solitude is a pleasure indeed.

In my case, it lets me feel the breath of my existence, lets me feel the limits of my own skin, lets me feel I inhabit my body in a way that makes writing a physical pleasure -- not just a happy coordination of mind eye and hand, but an engagement of the whole organism, heart and soul, shivers and sweats, liver, belly and lung. Writing is sexy. It is a flow of eros. At its best, it gathers all of me into one place, brings me present, wakes me up, shakes me down, gets me going. Writing brings me alive.

But who in their right mind would ever start out on a journey without the slightest idea of where they are going? Yet this is one of the foolish pleasures of writing. Especially in fiction, of course, where characters pop out of nowhere whispering "over here, this way," while someone else you thought was central fades into the mists of a horizon you might not even have noticed before.

Neither is nonfiction immune from all this uncertainty, even though you must at least have an idea, a point of view to get down when you start. But in the union of fingers and keys and screen, something else, something magical, can happen. Uninvited, even unwanted, thoughts, reflections and connections, above all connections, can turn the argument and even the intention of the whole work, an entirely different way. You can start out with the idea that you want to write a memoir and it becomes a book about D. H. Lawrence. Or the opposite. You plan a book on Lawrence, and end up writing about your neuroses. That's what happened to Geoff Dyer, in his book Out of Sheer Rage. It was meant to be on Lawrence, but what you get is a brilliant, hilarious and offbeat insight into Dyer´s struggles as a writer, as a man, as someone hopelessly trying to do a biography of Lawrence.

You just never know. But being willing not to know is one of the great pleasures and risks not only of writing, but of a fully lived life. Not knowing allows surprise, and the pleasure of surprise is what you get when you write. In my better moments, my brain follows the dance of my fingers, not the other way around. I see what's on the page to find out where I'm going next. As to why I write at all, that is another question I have no answer for. I can only think it's a personal neurosis, all those words on the page seeming to fill up the blank space. I just can't help doing it. It's a tic, though a pleasurable one. It's just what I do, and the funny thing is, the less I know what I'm going to say, the more enjoyable the experience is.

The pleasure of not fully knowing where you are going or why doesn't mean you merely drift through life or through your writing like a leaf in the wind. The fact that we can never see the whole picture doesn't mean we don't bother to form any personal intention -- no, it acknowledges that our intention is best served by an open, attentive mind, one that is receptive and cooperative with the larger forces of life around it, whatever they may be. Then life, or writing, can be what it is, a mystery, and not just an agenda; a mystery that is constantly revealing itself, and of which we are a part, instead of a program we have to laboriously work through. Life -- writing -- as revelation is a pleasure indeed.

Ultimately, the most foolish thing about writing of any kind is that you are only ever building castles in the air. But then, is that so very different to life? Is life itself anything more than the product of our own imagination?

When we say life is what we make it, are we referring to what we tangibly construct in the outer world, or do we mean that life is what we make of it, that is, how we interpret it, what we imagine it to be? There is an etymological connection between the words make, magic, imagination, matter, and yes, mother, madre. It is with the imagination that we make the world, and it is the world of the imagination that comes alive when we write. This is the true work of creation, the making of magic that all art is. Writing, like all art, is a means to taste life to the uttermost, to give one's all to a task that may serve no greater function than itself, a task that is beautiful, that is painful, that is all that a life worth living can be.