This is a short article I wrote last year for The Huffington Post. It has been revised for clarity and length.
Why do you write? Discuss in the comments.
I was working on a spreadsheet in my office and it was getting into me like a poison. I was sat at my desk, the air-conditioning was on. I was surrounded by sharp-dressed professionals. I had been working the spreadsheet for maybe only an hour, which in terms of being a real-life working office person is probably nothing, but there it was. My tongue tasted like a busted-open battery.
Here: information squared into a box. Here: mathematics all done, columned and coloured as you pleased. At a nearby desk a co-worker was playing the radio and some hot new number was playing. The number was so clean and sharp and it just went on and on perfectly chorded, digitized, auto-tuned and bass-thrummed, and this co-worker was humming along with it working on her own spreadsheet, which looked very much like mine and contained very much the same sort of information. The air-con blew cold. Good lord was it ever hot outside. Recently I had quit smoking and was in pretty bad spirits. Out the window the breeze was moving in the trees.
I sat there at my desk with my spreadsheet, with the air-con blowing, the co-worker with her tinny machine-music leaning open-mouthed toward her screen turning boxes red and blue. Suddenly, the first line of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl came into my head: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.
Maybe it didn’t mean that much–maybe I’m crazy. Make any assumptions you’d like about me. I’ve made assumptions about you. Not saying they’re right. Here we are together, though: crammed into offices, classrooms, courtrooms. Air-conditioned and ergonomic. Manning the counter at the grocer, the cinema, the department store. Nine hours a day minus one for lunch. Armoured in aprons or business-casual or chameleonic suit-and-tie. Clock-watching. With the dawn we rise muddy-eyed at eight-seven-six in the morning and we’re off! to the gym. We stair-climb the stair-climber. With faces twisted we run, panting and and sweating, on a treadmill. We run in the fresh cool morning under green trees, in the shadows of skyscrapers, along the water, down the beach where the waves roll blue up the stony shore and hiss pulling out into the sea. We miss the sea because we are counting burned-down calories. We are listening to headphones instead of to the water.
We quit smoking, we quit drinking, we quit cheating, we quit coffee and carbohydrates. Our blood pressure goes down, our debts go up, we lose weight or gain it, we buy elastic-band trousers, we sit on the sofa, we watch The Apprentice on television.
That day in the office, all of a sudden I wanted to leap up, to shout, to push the computer off of my co-worker’s desk and jump up and down on it until it smoked acrid chemical smoke and glass was pressed irretrievably into the carpet. I wanted to scream: We’ve all gone crazy! We’re just sitting around, waiting to die! Run! Run, for Chrissakes! Death is breathing hot down the backs of our shirts! I wanted the other people in the office to be excited, or terrified, or overcome, or–
Of course I didn’t do or say any of this–who could? And what–be fired? Today, standing up and running out of your job because you are inspired by poetry to go out there and do some real actual living counts as an act of incredibly stupid heroism. An act for which you will, perhaps, be lauded, but rarely celebrated, and almost certainly not emulated. And, like most people, I cannot afford to be a hero, stupid or non.
And so I write stories. When I am faced with smallness and inanity, or struck down by the catastrophic grief of life, or in my belly writhes a nest of snakes, stories are the only cure. I need them because I want to run screaming from the office whenthe radio plays an advertisement for mattresses or bank loans or cruises or clothes or cars. But: maybe the mattress salesman is, right now, trying to close up early and, before five, make it to the jeweler’s up the road where he’ll lay down the last payment on a pearl-topped engagement ring for a girl who works in a donut shop. Maybe aboard the cruise ship, right now, in the dark of the South Pacific, a woman plots to murder her husband. Perhaps the man designing the cars is, himself, obsessed with designing ever-safer ones because he was involved in a minor-fender bender in 1992 which has left him with a ridiculous but paralyzing fear of automobiles–I mean, who knows? Stories for me are a window to what is possible. To something larger and more meaningful underneath our day-to-day trivialities.
At night, I open the window so I can feel the breeze. I lay on my back and shut my eyes and focus on the coolness of the sheets against my skin and one at a time I go over all the stories I imagined might have happened that day to the people I saw. I think about someone like me who, sitting at his desk with his clean white spreadsheet, imagines he is descended from a tribe of Euphrates Bedouin.
I don’t think I’m alone here. I hope not. Consider this an invitation. If you are overwhelmed, anxiety-ridden, or simply hungry for more than spreadsheets and bad radio, look for the stories buried in the strata of the everyday. I don’t know what it’ll do for you. I’m not making any promises. But it only because of stories that I am able to get up every morning and go to work. That when the first comes around, I’m okay to just get on with it and pay the rent. It is because of stories that, when I get into bed at night, and the breeze comes through the window, I am able to move through the ritual that enables me to sleep.
Currently Reading: Go Down Moses by William Faulkner
Currently Listening to: Metamorphosis by Philip Glass
Current Location: The 9th circle of Excel