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What Matters

Suicide is one of the taboo topics for a number of journals and publishers, but examination of how we continue living in our fraught world is behind many writers’ impulses to put pen to paper (or open the laptop). For years, I had this story of the suicide of a prominent writer running through my head. I jumped into other writing projects but kept returning to the one of a great writer who took his own life and its impact on a group of young writers making their way. Ten years after the initial compulsion of this story, Socrates is Dead Again finally became a published novel.

In considering what brought me back to this story—despite the difficulty of the subject—were the central questions: Why do we write? What keeps us going in the midst of terrible despair? I have written two memoirs among my thirteen published books. One memoir, An Iceberg in Paradise, dealt with the power of memory and my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease. My most recent memoir, Unstuck in Time, chronicled my journey into grief and almost unbearable loss after the death of my son. I knew from creating these works of literature that writing had served as both markers of my descent into pain and mourning, as well as rediscovery of how to live with such crushing losses. As I thought about my characters’ motivations in my most recent novel Socrates is Dead Again, I realized that each one of them had a unique reason for writing. Although there were overlapping concepts involved in their pursuits, these characters each had their own niche purpose for the hard yet deeply satisfying work of writing. I also knew that my protagonist’s reasons for writing were the definition of paradox. He wrote to reveal the impossible.

When asked by readers why I write, I began compiling a list of reasons. Then I wrote down the reasons each of my characters wrote: for love, for money, for a job, for fame, for recognition, for independence, for understanding, for self-respect, for accolades, for affirmation, for fun, for exploration; and then, switching prepositions: to educate, to persuade others, to provide information, to clarify, to vent, to justify, to heal, to forget, to journey, to consider, to mourn, to protect, to counter argue, to protest, to apologize, to answer or respond, to invent, to teach or instruct, to solve, to impress, to defend, to attack, to surprise, to cause change, to record, to wander, to elaborate, to grow, to ward off boredom, to show off, to play, to eulogize, to mark history, to note, to express sympathy or empathy, to study, to make connections, to break a cycle, to find truth, to transform. After compiling a list of hundreds of reasons regarding why we write, I found I could take almost any verb, add the infinitive "to," and bring hundreds of nouns to the fore as one of the reasons we write. Language itself addresses the question, as well, communication being at the heart of all of our overt exchanges.

Only after considering this question, I went back over my novel to precisely examine each of my many characters’ motivations for writing only to discover how individual each reason was to that particular character. I pulled out quotations from the novel and found Gillian’s reason was partially hidden in jest to avoid being ridiculed: “Gillian stood up next to the counter and started singing, ‘I wanna liv forever.’” Tom’s reasons were more obvious: “All Tom needed was an original idea, then everything would fall neatly into place in his mess of a life.” There was no right or wrong answer, just our attempts to understand. Text became the path of our wanderings in an abstract forest. Adrian Wahl’s reasons were the most daunting to write because I had created that character out of the concept of mystery itself. But I found them and ended the novel with his words, not lost, even after his suicide.

All of the reasons we write, however, seem to come back as response to the question of why we live and die, our species very likely the only one to ponder existential questions about life and death (although it is difficult to discount the philosophical leanings of whales without written record). We have the entire history of literature, both fiction and nonfiction, indirectly or directly involved in this endeavor, and we continue in this creative struggle to attempt to answer the unanswerable.


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