Writing: The Need for Story
My office window looks out across an inlet of Lake Washington to the homes that cluster atop a hill to form the Laurelhurst neighborhood of Seattle. It’s a well-to-do residential area, but that’s not what draws my imagination whenever I gaze in that direction. It’s the miniaturization that takes place between where I sit and where the tiny cars on the hill creep through flashing red traffic lights, or how a Seattle City Light truck might be set up to do a job of work, safety lights flashing out of sync at various points along its exterior. Seattle’s gray, overcast skies only magnify the impression that I’m looking at an elaborate mechanical village, a plaything for a wealthy child, rather than an actual neighborhood. And of course the effect is strongest in the wintertime, when trees are bare and natural light scant.
The truth is, I often find myself wishing I could be transported to some spot on that hill. There’s never much going on, that I can tell, but to be there seems better than being here—and not just because I’m at work. Were I to drive to that side of the lake, I know the feeling would change by the time I arrived. Maybe I’d even end up parking, stepping out of my car, and standing at just the right intersection to be able to see across to the building I work in, and I would likely wish to be transported back to it. Call it Peter Pan Syndrome. The grass is always greener.
The thing is, desire isn’t always the same as actually wanting something. I wonder if we aren’t far more motivated by what we see in the middle and far distance than we sometimes realize. Maybe the impossible urge to be transported to that greener pasture is so strong that it gives rise to religions and art and philosophy and … well, maybe to the very idea that what we do matters. And what we do begins with desire. This is one of the principal lessons of Clive Barker’s dense novel The Great and Secret Show. Everything flows from the mind.
And you know what? We can get across that proverbial lake in an instant. Not through teleportation or shamanistic trickery, but by engaging in stories and other forms of art. Stories take us much farther than across the lake, of course, but it all amounts to the same thing. Whether it’s the breathtaking expanse of Tolkien’s Misty Mountains or the claustrophobic set of rooms in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” we’re essentially whisked across the lake when we engage in story. We are taken from here and placed there. Sometimes it happens in the first sentence, as with Poe’s tale of terror. Sometimes we wait for it as we struggle with a more difficult opening passage—Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon, for instance. But at some point, if we’re in capable hands, the sentence will eventually come that hauls us out of the weight and gravity of the here and flies us to the there.
From a creative standpoint, there’s a certain urgency to all of this. I’m only truly alive during periods when I can spend most of my time creating. Everything else is pretend, for the sake of keeping a roof over my family’s head, food in the refrigerator, and books on the shelves. There’s all this raw material (reality) coming at me and I’m expected to do something with it. Letting any of it pass by without recording, interpreting, and commenting on it in a meaningful way feels like a sin. At various points in my life the primary tools I’ve used to do this work have been guitars, pens, and computer keyboards, but whether I’m composing an acoustic guitar solo or working on a novel, it’s still a matter of tapping into the same mysterious vein. It’s about transporting myself to that hill across the lake and doing my best to make sure that others will be able to follow my instructions for getting there themselves. Once gathered, they are at my mercy.
I miss making music since giving it up to concentrate solely on writing, which is one of the handful of artistic pursuits, after all, with which a practitioner has an ice cube’s chance in the Sahara of catching a break past the age of thirty. But if I ever do catch that break, and regain some free time in my life, I plan to make it up to those lonesome guitars of mine in spades. Until then, I write.