To be a writer, we have to learn what writing is, particularly and personally. Not just why to write and what to write, but what is the easiest way for you to write. This can only be found by trial and error—and trying again. I love writing fiction: novels and plays. I’ve come to think that each of us has either a “fiction-brain” or a “non-fiction” brain, and it’s rare to find those who can do both well. I have fiction brain. The reason that I write? Because I can’t not. I treasure writing, and I didn’t want to depend on it for my livelihood. I became a doctor to have a “day job,” and get to write whatever I want, without one eye on the paycheck.
And there are a lot of reasons to write. Tolstoy, the great novelist, spent twenty-five years trying to answer the question, “What is art?” He finally came up with a small book of that title, with this answer: “Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously by means of certain external signs hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by these feelings, and also experience them.” Note that he says “hands on to others feelings he has lived through.” He is not referring to a transfer of information or knowledge (communication, which can be done by computers); he is talking about an “infection” of feeling—the writing stirs up that same feeling that the writer experienced, in his reader. It is a mutual connection.
If you’re lucky, the first time you get an e-mail or letter from someone you don’t know but who has read your book and wrote you to say how important is it to them, you will know the total joy, almost a little bit like love. As the novelist E.M. Forster put it: “Only connect.” For my just-published novel, At the Heart of the Universe, published by Seven Stories Press, I am sharing the feelings—and imaginings, for this is a novel, not a non-fiction book—of the most important moment in Janet and my lives: a fictional account of adopting our daughter when she was four months old from an orphanage in China in 1992; and going back with her when she was ten, when certain amazing things happened that simply had to be told as a novel.
Please join us @ the book launch:
Samuel Shem in conversation with Adam Pertman, Adoption Nation, and with Katie Surrey-Bergman and Janet Surrey. At Soho Playhouse, 14 Vandam Street, NYC. November 14, Monday at from 7 to 8:45. Free.