In early September last year, I began to feel an ache running between my spine and right shoulderblade. I’d felt such aches before and thought little of them. A few days rest and the pain would disappear.
Within a week, the ache had grown to include the line running from behind my ear to the point of my shoulder. I tried to book in for a massage but ended up seeing an acupuncturist. One night, at about 1 am, I awoke in the most pain I had ever felt. It seemed that the entirety of the muscles surrounding my shoulder were in spasm. I didn’t know at the time, but I had suffered a disc extrusion. The C7 disc, located at the base of my neck, was leaking. This is an injury similar to a bulging disc, but more severe.
For several weeks I was unable to walk or sit. For two months I was confined to my bed. For four months I was unable to write.
When similar symptoms began to occur after a fairly innocuous incident six weeks ago, I had at least an idea what I was in for. It was a not-so-severe recurrence of the injury – but this is the first piece of writing I have completed since then.
During my first bout, I was filled with worry that I might never write again. During the latest round, my thoughts morphed into something different: why did I want to continue writing?
‘Why write?’ is, of course, a famous question for scribblers, but the injury gave me an entirely different perspective on it. For starters, poor posture while writing was the primary contributing factor in the first place. More importantly, the sequence of events contained a whole series of its own questions – questions about life and meaning, to be grandiose.
A severe injury – like an attack of serious illness – tends to make one philosophical precisely because it intimates our end. The body wears out; it succumbs to viruses, bacteria and a host of predators. It’s one thing to be bedridden for a week with serious flu or the undignified agonies of gastro or food poisoning. But to be laid up for months was an experience entirely new to me, one that could not but change my perspective.
I’ve found myself wondering whether my time might be better spent. We all have our reasons for writing: for money, for ego, out of the hope we might be able to change the world. A well-known Melburnian novelist once told me that he wrote so that when he was older he might still be able to seduce women. Erm. Props for honesty, I guess.
I had wanted to be a writer for as long as I could recall. The desire dated back at least to my early high-school years, and most likely before. My initial reasons were only hazy recollections.
In an online piece, Jeff Sparrow argued that one reason to write is because literature can help us to grasp the world in a new way: it can illuminate futures not yet possible, can foster empathy with people from different eras or cultures, can generate emotions that we might not otherwise articulate, and do various other things besides. All of that is political – albeit in its own fashion and its own register.
As I lay on my back a month ago, I had one crucial problem with this formulation: it was an argument for literature in general; it was not an argument for why I should write.
I might be ‘good’ at writing, but then there are other things at which I am also good. As soon as I began seriously considering the reason for writing, a whole horizon of possibilities opened up. I could return to study long-overlooked interests; I could return to teaching; I could become involved in more practical politics; I could travel more, save money, take on tiny mundane projects; I could lead a life unencumbered by the deadline and the weight of feeling like one had to ‘be productive’.
In the end, the only reason to write, it seemed to me, was because I wanted to. Or, more properly, because it made me feel good, both in an immediate sense (though admittedly only rarely) but also in a more important, long-term sense of fulfilment. What gets me to the computer is the excitement of the idea, of form coming together, of the startling and beautiful arrangement of words, of the thing precisely described, of the intellectual curiosity of a puzzle to be solved or an argument to be worked out.
The sense of having written – of having challenged my capabilities, negotiated my way through those puzzles, worked hard and created something unique – allowed me to feel content. This is the experience that psychologists call ‘flow’.
So, though it is often harder, writing is better for me (and I’m speaking only of me) psychologically than many other activities that have instant rewards, such as watching television or surfing the internet. In a sense, it’s not unlike going to the gym: I don’t particularly like it, but it is good in the long run.
This, it seems to me, is a crucial element of writing, one that is all too often ignored, perhaps because it sounds so damned egotistical.
Though I suspect that it seems more egotistical than it actually is. For starters, there are many elements to feeling good. A key component, no doubt, comes from the sense of having contributed – a desire that, if we are to believe psychologists, is essentially human.
If we’re to be honest, we tend to backward-rationalise our motivations when, in fact, they are often driven by the search for ‘good feelings’. We say, ‘I write because I want to make the world better’, but that is simply the after-the-fact reason we tell ourselves.
Thus I write because it feels good to me and it feels good because I delight in writing’s ability to, as Sparrow phrases it, ‘help us to grasp the world in a new way’.
And, despite my doubts, it still does.