“I am myself the substance of my book, and there is no reason why you should waste your leisure on so frivolous and unrewarding a subject.”
–Michel de Montaigne
You are violently introduced to the world one day when you least expect it. You aren’t really ready to leave the warmth, safety, and comfort of your mother’s womb—and let’s face it, the world is probably not ready for you either. Yet, after some long, arduous hours of intense labor, there you are—small and fat and hopefully the most adorable thing anyone has ever seen. Throughout those first few glorious years, you lead a sheltered life: your mom coddles you and puts you to sleep, your father puts to use those diaper skills he’s learned with your older sister and, for some reason, people seem to want to stay up all night whenever you are simply singing your baby-tunes. You pipe down for just a second, and the moment you start singing your heart out, in comes your mom or dad again, sleep-deprived and insistent on rocking you to sleep. It doesn’t work—all you want to do is sing, and sing you shall.
Eventually though, you realize those baby-tunes you have been singing all night are actually horrid, loud, annoying crying. As you grow, you realize how inadequate all your previous attempts at self-expression have been, and unless you rebel against society and insist on crying, or you’ve been endowed with the gift of a great voice, a great hand, or any other requisite for talent in the visual and plastic arts, one of your last resorts for self-expression is becoming a writer.
Honestly, you have not really been looking forward to it. At first the ink seems impersonal, the letters on the page distant vestiges of what first originated as a thought in a living, real, human brain. Yet slowly, as you get used to the cadences and the syntax and the grammar and the words—those words, those words! There are so many words that it’s probably the nearest you’ve ever come to actually experiencing infinity! You realize that the words are as alive as that thought inside your head and that the alphabet is not the stale, inadequate means of expression you initially thought it to be.
And so you let fly. You begin writing a story about some bears living in the mountains and how they eat fish and sleep and find friendship and love in the beauty of nature. “That’s deep,” your teacher says. She gives you a gold star. You proudly bring the story back to Mom. She gives you a hug for it. Dad congratulates you and hangs it on the fridge. You go to sleep thinking you’ve made your parents proud—and you truly, truly have.
And so, surprised that you might actually have a talent in something you like, you keep on writing. Your writing gets longer, more complex, and so do the criticisms of your teachers. You grow up writing dumb novels about two brothers who go camping and get lost yet ultimately find their way home. You write about a boggart living in a castle in Denmark and, your sister—God bless her—with love and dedication prints them out from her new desktop computer and manually pastes the pages together to make an actual book. Yet, slowly, people stop caring. Teachers no longer give you gold stars and the principal no longer marvels at how much you love to write.
Eventually, the “teachers” becomes “professors”—a more serious and formal denotation you don’t quite understand. They expect you to write more serious and formal pieces than you did before. And so, lost in all the work and friends and hormones and new-found loves, you let your writing slip. It becomes one of those things you used to love. Your parents still keep those novels you used to write as a child, despite your suggestion that they burn them. Luckily, your dad insists on keeping them and hides them, safe from your zeal to destroy anything embarrassing from the past.
As the years go on, you write less to impress your parents and your teachers, and more to get an A on that essay or that test. Maybe you even occasionally attempt to write novels, works that begin with sentences like “The silverware’s ready, Mrs. Fairfax,” that will astound the world by their simplicity and depth and will be spoken about for centuries to come. Yet for some reason you never get beyond the second page. You have lost it. You give up. You look at those novels you wrote as a child and wonder how you did it. You smile at their green paper spines, those illustrations your father made for the covers and fake reviews your sister wrote critiquing your work and calling each one “Your best novel yet.” You wish that trend would continue; you wish that every new work you’d write would be that best novel yet. That it would capture human experience and hold it eternal and beautiful between the covers of your book. That some child would pick it up one day and find the mystery of humanity revealed. Yet, you can’t write. It seems to be all gone, and you begin to wonder.
Maybe you’ve forgotten that those “dumb” novels were the most important thing to you. You wrote from the heart back then, about the things you cared about. You didn’t care to be the next Kate Chopin or Oscar Wilde. You didn’t worry that you might not write the most beautiful, elaborate sentences that would capture a moment and hold a scene in its grasp. You didn’t concern yourself with trying to be the next Hemingway by drafting short, simple sentences that nevertheless said so much. You simply wrote, and it was beautiful. It was beautiful because your parents thought it was and because, captured within those cardboard covers, in size 20 Comic Sans, it was the essence of your childhood and what you most loved.
When you finally reach college, you are already disillusioned with your writing and accept the fact that you’ll never be the next Virginia Woolf. You’ve resigned yourself to writing that paper analyzing St. Augustine’s rise to transcendence through interiority, how it mirrors Diotima’s ladder in Plato’s Symposium, and how the physical world is but a medium through which to reach eternal truth. And then you reach U. Writing, thinking you’ve gotten to yet another class that will teach you vague notions of being a writer. You will learn how to cite MLA properly and get on with writing serious essays.
But then, because you are writing so often and working with your own ideas, you realize that you can write about the things you like again. That you can take Oscar Wilde and leaf through The Importance of being Earnest and find new things you’d never seen before. That you can draw connections in unexpected places, delve into an essay through an interesting exhibit, and—most unexpectedly—discover that the exhibit could even be yourself. You can be the subject of your own writing.
And so you write about the thrill you got when someone you were interested in actually liked your post on Facebook, but how your friends were unable to understand your emotions, and how you wondered what that says about the effect the Internet is having on human relationships. You write about affirmative action and how you got into college. By writing about yourself, you discover that once more there’s something new and beautiful inside you. That you have interesting things to say. That you can join a conversation between Oscar Wilde and a doctor of theology about the nature of identity. And you learn that, ultimately, you’re more complex than you thought. You learn what Oscar Wilde meant when he said, “Only the shallow know themselves,” and you strive to dive deeper and deeper into the recesses of your complexity to discover more of yourself (1244). At the same time, Virginia Woolf tells you that the meaning of life was “little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark” (161). You wonder how you’ll make sense of it all.
So you write more to make sense of it all for yourself. And you realize you are also still writing, not just for yourself, but for your parents. And your sister. You always write for them. You realize in a year of being far away from them, living in a 120-square-foot dorm in New York City, that you’ve always written thinking of them as the audience. That’s why you send them essays and papers that have already been corrected, pretending you need their feedback or their help, even when you can’t help feeling that you’re wasting their time on feedback that won’t really matter, at least not to the grade. Yet, you’re relieved to hear when they call you back and marvel at how beautifully you write.
So maybe, just maybe, when it seems like its lost, it’ll all come back if you write about yourself and for yourself—and for the people who matter to you most. Because everything you do—you realize—is always for those three people, those three who accepted you and loved you when you were least ready to come into the world, and when they were probably not even sure they were ready for you either. You write for them. For illustrating your covers and for binding the pages together and for reading your dumb books when they had so much more work to do. Finally, you remember Virginia Woolf defining those “little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark,” those transient moments that encapsulate the purpose of your existence and give meaning to your life (161). She had said, simply: “here was one” (161). And you realize: Your family. Here was one. Your writing. Here was one. Yourself. Here was one.
Montaigne, Michel de. Essays. London: Penguin Books, 1958. 23. Print.
Wilde, Oscar. “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young.” Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Ed. Owen D. Edwards, Terence Brown, Declan Kiberd, and Merlin Holland. London: Collins, 2003. 1244-45. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Orlando: Harcourt, 1955. Print.