Utterly and Magnificently … Useless.
I started writing at the local library today, just a couple of blocks away from my house. I found an unoccupied table by a large window overlooking College Street. It turned out to be pleasant day–a grey morning transformed into perfect blue. I sat myself in a large sprawling room with several shelves of books cloistered in the middle of it. The library was full of people, especially in the magazine and newspaper section where I happened to be. A pile of Rolling Stone magazines sat on the table to my right left behind by a bald middle-aged man, and a Chinese woman in a red sweater sat across from me, leafing through the latest glossy issue of House and Home. I looked out the window and wondered how long it’s been since I’ve spent this much time in a library. They are still remarkably quiet like I remember, and they still have that aged professor in a tweed jacket smell about them. Maybe it’s really that nourishing silence that makes libraries sacred, even if it’s cracked open once in a while by a cough or the hush of human voices. Somehow, that silence always seems to return naturally.
I am writing at the library for a couple of reasons. First of all, I had forgotten how much I really love libraries, and I am really just reacquainting myself with one of the places that I found sacred as a child. And secondly, I have been neglectful of my writing because of the demands of my computer and the interweb. It seems easier here to just show up and begin. At home there are a thousand distractions, and the struggle to throw words onto paper is easily eclipsed by the difficulty of just getting down to it. So there I was, writing. Freed from the ordinary way of going about things, sticking it to the familiar and filling hours with words.
I started my writing session by reading a little essay from The Observer by Paul Auster that I had printed out and saved as a way of encouragement. It’s a wonderful response to the question: Why does someone embark on this “magnificently useless” endeavor of writing. The piece is actually from Paul Auster’s acceptance speech for the Prince of Asturias Prize for Letters, Spain’s premier literary honor. It’s definitely worth a read or two. Here a few excellent quotations from the piece:
I don’t know why I do what I do. If I did know, I probably wouldn’t feel the need to do it. All I can say, and I say it with utmost certainty, is that I have felt this need since my earliest adolescence. I’m talking about writing, in particular, writing as a vehicle to tell stories, imaginary stories that have never taken place in what we call the real world. Surely it is an odd way to spend your life – sitting alone in a room with a pen in your hand, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, struggling to put words on pieces of paper in order to give birth to what does not exist – except in your head. Why on earth would anyone want to do such a thing? The only answer I have ever been able to come up with is: because you have to, because you have no choice.
In other words, art is useless, at least when compared, say, to the work of a plumber, or a doctor, or a railroad engineer. But is uselessness a bad thing? Does a lack of practical purpose mean that books and paintings and string quartets are simply a waste of our time? Many people think so. But I would argue that it is the very uselessness of art that gives it its value and that the making of art is what distinguishes us from all other creatures who inhabit this planet, that it is, essentially, what defines us as human beings.
To do something for the pure pleasure and beauty of doing it. Think of the effort involved, the long hours of practice and discipline required to become an accomplished pianist or dancer. All the suffering and hard work, all the sacrifices in order to achieve something that is utterly and magnificently … useless.
…human beings need stories. They need them almost as desperately as they need food and however the stories might be presented – whether on a printed page or on a television screen – it would be impossible to imagine life without them.
Every novel is an equal collaboration between the writer and the reader and it is the only place in the world where two strangers can meet on terms of absolute intimacy.
I have spent my life in conversations with people I have never seen, with people I will never know and I hope to continue until the day I stop breathing.
It’s the only job I’ve ever wanted.
So may you write until you drop, or as my favorite columnist, Sugar on the Rumpus says: “Write like a motherfucker.”