“I’ve never planned anything. I haven’t had any career at all. I only have a life.”
A few days ago a woman on Twitter asked me, “Do you find it ironic that your biggest impact has been made not with your art, but your art and writing ABOUT being an artist?”
I immediately thought of W.H. Auden, who died almost half a century ago, but said, “It’s a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it.” (He wrote a funny poem called “On The Circuit” about his speaking gigs.)
But to answer the original question: I don’t even think of myself as an artist anymore. I’m a writer who draws. (A title I stole from Saul Steinberg.)
All I ever wanted to do was be part of the world I loved. The world I discovered in books and art and music. I want to be part of it. I don’t care how or in what capacity.
Being a professional writer now means I can be a professional reader. Montaigne said he made bouquets out of other men’s flowers, but he was the one who provided the string to tie them together. I like that image, except bouquets eventually die, and the great thing about books is that they are paper bouquets that never die: they can be torn to their pieces and rearranged indefinitely.
Karl Lagerfield died this week, and he said: “Books are a hard-bound drug with no danger of an overdose. I am the happy victim of books.” If books are drugs, then maybe my books are just gateway drugs that lead to better ones. I’m more than okay with that!
But again, what’s the point, here? Why do I even write books in the first place?
It’s just to join in the fun. To be part of that world that I love. To be in a chain that goes backwards and forwards, no matter how puny my link.
Nathaniel Hawthorne said in his 1851 preface to his Twice-Told Tales, that they were “not the talk of a secluded man with his own mind and heart… but his attempts, and very imperfectly successful ones, to open an intercourse with the world.” Oliver Sacks snatched this phrase up for his end-of-life reminiscence in Gratitude:
I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and travelled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
What more could you ask for?