So often I dwell on the unavoidable truth that writing is hard. Every day as I face the blank or unrevised page, I feel the dread that I won’t be able to fill or fix it, that somehow the difficult work is simply beyond me.
But in this terrific short interview from Oprah Magazine, Toni Morrison reminds me of something I somehow forget. In the face of inevitable struggle, writing is also magical. It has the power to transcend time and space and to bring to the fore the unquestionable gold that all of us are human.
That is certainly why I write historical fiction – to discover the humanity in times, places and people who are entirely different from those I know. I love to dig into that past to see life through a very different lens. I try to understand worlds where beliefs and values are utterly unfamiliar and yet, for those who live them, utterly true. Through this imagining, I find my compassion for humanity broadens and deepens. I can be less critical of others. I can smile at the foibles and quirks that might annoy me, and I can try to accept the many horrors that have always shook the world.
Writing allows us to step into one another’s shoes, to understand each other’s thoughts and lives in ways that, by ourselves, we might denigrate or condemn.
Writing gives us a window into the past and a way to imagine possible futures. Writing gives us the power to control things we cannot. It gives us a place to set down our greatest hopes and fears.
And though each of us struggles to give proper form to our invention, the effort to do so ties us to the magical self that can envision perfection.
Finally, for me at least, life without words would be hollow. When Morrison mentions her melancholy after finishing her first novel, The Bluest Eye, I can utterly understand. Without writing – without a project calling me, giving me purpose, without something to explore beyond the everyday world, without people – characters – talking to me in my head – I am only half a person, only half-present in this world. Strange as it may seem, that other dimension makes this one richer for me. It gives context and relevance to my life’s otherwise sometimes frustrating, formless meanderings.
Somehow the work of fiction gives my life shape. It transforms random experiences into plot and direction. If I occasionally interpret my own story as a novel, expecting an exciting climax and praying for a rare happy ending, is it the fault of my life’s work? Or do we all have a story to live – maybe one that one day will deserve to be written down?