“Why can’t I write something that would awake the dead? That pursuit is what burns most deeply.”Patti Smith, Just Kids
The writers who’ve inspired me the most over the years share a knack for expressing complex, often-conflicting feelings in potent, artful prose that captures my own complex, often-conflicting feelings. Writers like Joan Didion, Lester Bangs, Michael Chabon, Stephen King, and Patti Smith leap to mind. It’s what makes their writing speak directly to my my mind, my heart, my soul. This paragraph from Chabon’s essay collection Manhood for Amateurs is the sort of writing that moves the earth under my feet:
“Sooner or later, you will discover which kind of father you are, and at that moment you will, with perfect horror, recognize the type. You are the kind of father who fakes it, who yells, who measures his children with greatest accuracy only against one another, who evades the uncomfortable and glosses over the painful and pads the historic records of his sorrows and accomplishments alike. You are the kind who teases and deceives and toys with his children and subjects them to displays of rich and manifold sarcasm when—as is always the case—sarcasm is the last thing they need. You are the kind of father who pretends knowledge he doesn’t possess, and imposes information with implacable gratuitousness, and teaches lessons at the moment when none can be absorbed, and is right, and has always been right, and always will be right until the end of time, and never more than immediately after he has been wrong. And when your daughter’s body begins to betray her, and her sky flickers in the distance with the heat lightning of sex, you clear your throat and stroke your chin whiskers and tell her to go ask her mother. You can’t help it—you’re a walking cliché.”
There it is, the harsh truth of fatherhood: at some point, the realization that we’re walking cliches will smack us square in the mouth. We’ll spend the rest of our days trying, unsuccessfully, to forget this truth. Fatherhood long ago confirmed for me that Chabon’s words might’ve been personal but they’re likely universal for many fathers, especially fathers prone to introspection and anxiety. Chabon thrives best as a writer when he’s expressing complicated emotions that we can’t quite put into words ourselves. That is the writer’s unique gift: to translate personal internal struggles onto the page for us, the readers, so that we might connect with and find solace in the fact that there is someone else who understands how we feel.
What I’m always searching for is that moment of connection, when the writer’s words seem to have been pulled straight from my cerebral cortex; it took the writer’s talent to help me make sense of my own thoughts and feelings. This sort of writing has greatly influenced my own writing style over the years. My pursuit of that connection runs both ways: I want it from writers I read, and I want to provide it to readers of my writing. And when it happens, in either direction, it’s like I’ve reached a state of nirvana. Grady Hendrix’s heavy metal horror novel We Sold Our Souls, contains just such a sentence that does this for me; it shook me so much I had to pause and put the book down for a second:
“For a second, Kris stood in that other world, parallel to ours, where nothing was ever broken, and all her friends were still alive, and it was never too late.”
In a scant thirty words, Hendrix delivers a powerful, poignant a reflection on loss and grief. Who hasn’t yearned for another chance, on a parallel world or in the next life? Another chance to spend more time with those we loved and lost? With this book, and with that lovely, sentimental sentence, Hendrix accomplishes something writers strive for but don’t always reach: he makes the personal feel universal.
That connection, between writer and reader, is one of writing’s great rewards for me. It’s hard to explain the sense of accomplisment I feel when readers say that something I wrote touched them because it connected to their experiences and emotions. Those are always my most rewarding moments as a reader too. In Chabon’s extraordinary essay on loving his son even though he might not fully understand him, My Son, the Prince of Fashion, the writer yet again captures the essence of fatherhood for me:
“And though I couldn’t fathom the impulse driving my kid to expose himself, every day, to mockery and verbal abuse at school, I admired him for not surrendering, and in time I came to understand the nature of my job as the father of this sartorial wild child: I didn’t need to fathom Abe or his stylistic impulses; I needed only to let him go where they took him and, for as long as he needed me, to follow along behind.”
What a gift writers possess, to speak to the multitude of emotions many of us experience while simply speaking for themselves. This is why I write, because if there’s even the slightest chance I can express something that will allow others to recognize and possibly make sense of similar feelings in themselves, then I’ve done something right, at least.
We are not alone. We all want to find others that understand us. It’s human nature. Deeply personal writing can connect us in ways that few other things can. That’s why I read. That’s why I write. And that’s why I’ll never stop writing, because I’m always searching for that feeling, that special communion between writer and reader. It’s like Tom Sizemore’s character says in Heat (1995):” Because for me, the action is the juice.” The juice is that sense of belonging that writing brings both writers and readers. That’s what we’re chasing. And like any drug, each hit of the juice only makes us want more. So the chase continues, forever. Pardon some further indulgence, but I think there’s a nobility in that. Like Patti Smith, we write to awaken the dead, to pursue what burns most deeply.