I said, in the first of this series on craft, that one reason to write is to connect with the reader on a feeling level, but I also pointed out that, for me, that is only partly satisfying. In an interview with The Boston Globe recently I was asked “Why do you write?” and I surprised myself by saying:
I write for two reasons: to resist injustice, and to show the danger of isolation, and the healing power of good connection.
The second reason is similar to Tolstoy’s definition of connection.
But why did I first say “to resist injustice”?
I have found what gets me going are ”Hey wait a second” moments. These are times during the day when, say, we don’t do something that we might have done–maybe to help a person, but we pass on by– or we do something that maybe we shouldn’t have, and we say to ourselves, “Hey wait a second, why didn’t I do that? Or why did I do that?” We all have these moments. And when enough of these moments pile up, I start to write.
Beginning my first novel, about medical internship, The House of God, I realized that the reason I had to write was I had lived through an astonishing wild horrific angry funny year of learning to be a doctor—full of abuse—so damn many “Hey wait a second” moments, that someone had to tell this story and clearly that someone had to be me. It started as a catharsis. I realized, much later, that this is the engine that starts all my novels, a sense of outrage that powers my work—and takes seven drafts to get the anger out. And it has to ride on humor, or no one would bother to read it.
What about the other motivation, “to resist injustice.” That’s what the “Hey, wait a second moments” are, a sense of outrage at the state of things, and trying to make other people feel it, and respond—whether or not it helps—to do good in the world. As Chekhov put it:
The best of writers are realistic and describe life as it is, but because each line is saturated with the consciousness of its goal, you feel life as it should be in addition to life as it is, and you are captivated by it.
Or Wallace Stevens:
Things as they are are changed upon the blue guitar.
Good writing can do that. The House of God, after 2 million copies, and “required reading” for all health care workers, has helped change the way doctors are trained.
For the same reasons, I began writing my just-released novel, set in China, At the Heart of the Universe. When Janet and I and our daughter went back to China when our adopted daughter was ten, at the police station where she was given up by her birth mother almost ten years before, something incredible happened that had me saying, ”Hey wait a second—someone’s gotta write this!” The “one child per family policy”, which cause great suffering, was part of it.
And just today I got an e-mail from a friend who’d read At the Heart of he Universe: “…I’m guessing, but I suspect that your most important purpose in writing this was to create a beautiful gift for your daughter, giving her a sort of second life in which she can experience some important things she may feel missing in what’s called “real” life. I wonderful if, having made the book for such a strong and personal purpose, you may not completely realize how beautiful a gift you’ve also made in it for the world. This is a book that wants to be read.”
This is why we write, and do seven drafts.
Hey wait a second: It’s love.
Please join us @ the book launch for At the Heart of the Universe:
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.