In the preface to his book All the Days and Nights, William Maxwell tells a story about his journey as a young writer. He goes to visit the captain of the schooner owned by J.P. Morgan in hopes that he can be taken aboard as part of the crew, to spend a year at sea before coming back to settle down and write. “I had meant to go to sea, so that I would have something to write about.”
It turned out that the schooner hadn’t left port in four years, and the captain was taking another job because he was bored.
At the time Maxwell says that he had no idea that he already had 3/4 of the material for his writing–family, the way things looked, the weather, the unfinished game of solitaire, etc. Things in his ordinary, everyday world. All he needed to do was learn his trade—to know what would make a story or a longer work.
He describes how the stories in this particular collection came to be: one written perfectly as soon as it was written, others taking many, many drafts. Others achieving a perfection in an early draft–a perfection that wasn’t recognized until a couple of drafts (and years) later.
In many ways this is good news to me. Because I will not be going to sea or on an exotic adventure. Because my childhood and upbringing were remarkable in their unremarkability. Because I am not famous, notorious, or even particularly talented. Because sometimes, contrary to everything I’ve been taught, I do write great first drafts.
There was something else in Maxwell’s preface as well. He didn’t seem to need to ignore his family in order to write. At a writers’ conference that I recently attended, several of the instructors independently hit on the same theme: to write you sacrifice the people around you—you go away (physically and mentally) to work; you shut the door on the world around you. Several writers even chuckled about how upset a spouse can get when you go around the house not speaking to her (or him). Several writers described the act of writing as “selfish”.
But, if you shut the door on the world around you, how do you observe it in order to write about it?
Maxwell talks about falling asleep telling stories to his wife as they lay in bed for the evening, and her waking him up, begging him to tell her what happened next. He talks about pieces written for birthdays or tied up as ornaments on the Christmas tree. His description of writing is anything but selfish. He writes as gifts to others, for others.
I certainly do not intend to sacrifice my family on the altar of my computer keyboard. I work a day job to provide income and stability for our family. Writing for avocation must come after that. My daughter needs my attention and interaction in order to develop into the incredible person she can become. Writing for avocation must come after that. Marriage is always a work in progress, and I would not presume for one minute to put my writing before interacting with and giving love to and receiving love from my husband.
Seeing your name in print on a work you produced is an incredible feeling. Writers do write to express their thoughts and feelings, and I suppose a writer must spend some time alone with those thoughts and feelings in order to write about them. Certainly, I do my best writing in a quiet place, undisturbed when my muse has knocked on the door of my soul with something to say. And it does seem to me that the “urge” to write creatively never comes at a convenient time.
My goal though is not to write for me. I want to write something that speaks to other people, that makes another person’s world a little better—even if it is only to generate a slight smile of identification with a line of text on a day when nothing else is going right for my reader.
So, is writing a selfish act? Or an unselfish gift?