Charlie's Blog: The Habit


The Habit

I write to discover what I know.

Some people smoke. Others drink. Others chew their fingernails while others including myself can't get through a day without two or more cups of coffee. Everyone has their habits. Some are benign. Others are malignant. Then, there is my habit. My habit is writing. It consumes a large part of my leisure time, and it eats a gigantic chunk of my mental life. If given the time, I would write every single day. I don't have to make myself write. It irritates my insides in a way that I think the cigarette smoker always craves a hit of nicotine. I write to return to a state of normalcy. I write for relief. Writing is a habit just like any other. I just can't decide if this writing habit is malignant or benign.

I dream of not having to write. I think of how nice it would be to sleep in each morning instead of having this overwhelming need to tap plastic keys to make words emerge on a glowing screen. I consider the many hours I have spent pouring it all out. I have been doing this sort of thing for years going all the way back to childhood. At my age now, I consider it as time wasted and think of all the many things I could have accomplished in those hours at the keyboard. I would know at least one foreign language by now. I would be able to play a mean game of chess. I would be the fittest person I know. I would be rich. Instead, I am a failed writer who can't stop wasting what is left of his life producing words to add to the millions of words that already exist that nobody reads.

Why do I write? I would like to think that I write for the benefit of others, but that would be a self-delusion. There is no benefit in what is unread. We write so that others may read. What chef makes a meal to sit on a table and grow cold and then be thrown in the garbage? No, I am not going to fool myself into thinking that my writing serves some humanitarian purpose.

A more ludicrous proposition would be the idea that writing will make me rich. Somehow, the C-man will get his big break and people will pay top dollar for his words and/or the movie rights. But I have known that writing only makes writers poor from my earliest days with pen and paper. It always surprises people to learn that the authors of many bestsellers have to keep down a dayjob to make ends meet, and these are the successful writers. Some successful writers like Nassim Taleb actually lose money to write a bestseller since being a hedge fund manager is way more lucrative than putting words on paper and doing book tours. Writers don't do it for the money except for the really bad writers.

I write out of compulsion and habit. I write for the selfish purpose of relieving whatever it is that is inside of me. Flannery O'Connor got it right. I write to discover exactly what it is that I know. I don't really know something until I have put in on the page or the screen. I will go back and read things I have written, and I am astounded that I actually wrote those things. I don't really know where they come from. When I talk about the things I write about, my conversations sound like one disordered jamble of madness and incoherence. People give me that weird look that asks, "What the hell are you talking about?" I know that I come across to the people I meet as both intellectual and insane. It is only when it all turns into these words that I am able to take that swirl of ideas and words in my head and turn them into something meaningful and coherent. Writing an essay is like mining one's brain and taking the crude ore of the intellect and turning it into the shiny finished product of these words that you are reading now. I confess that I don't know what I know until I have turned them into these written words.

It is said that Flannery O'Connor continued writing even on her deathbed. They found written pages under her pillow even when ordered by her doctor to cease and desist. I can identify with that. It is like the smoker in the hospital who sneaks a puff in the bathroom when the nurses aren't around. Writers are habitual creatures. It is no coincidence that so many of them are smokers and drinkers. Flannery O'Connor is my favorite writer because she seemed free of those vices. For her, daily mass and her Roman Catholic faith kept her from the sad but stereotypical excesses of other writers. Of all the writers I have admired, she strikes me as the most normal, the most well-adjusted, and the sanest. The irony comes from the fact that her work is the most bizarre stuff you will ever read.

I have tried to quit this writing habit, but I must now admit that I am unable to pull it off. I am good at quitting. I can quit just about anything. I walked off a job once just because I was tired of the madness of the place and wanted to keep my sanity and my dignity. I quit eating meat. I quit being an atheist. I can quit just about anything except being a writer. I only look at the cost of my writing and the many possible things I could have done with the time and energy. But I should face the reality. My writing is what kept me from all those other destructive things like alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide that plagued all those other writers like Hemingway and Woolf. Writers are messed up people. They write in order to not do something worse. I confess that I am one of those messed up people. My faith in God makes me whole again, but it was the writing that kept me alive when I refused to believe in Him.

I would really like to quit this habit of mine, but I just can't seem to do it. I know that I don't write for others but for myself, and there is a guilt in that. It is a selfish thing. But writing isn't like playing golf, hunting deer, or going fishing leaving families widowed and orphaned every Saturday. Writing is done for me, but it makes me a better person. Writing is more like prayer, going to Confession, or taking exercise. Writing fixes what is in the mind. It purges and purifies. Writing is not self-indulgence. It is too laborious and painful to be indulgent. Writing is willed suffering and release. It takes madness and turns it into sanity. It brings order from the chaos.

I don't know where I go from here. My intention was to quit this writing thing once and for all. But now, I know that my intention should be to quit kidding myself that I am ever going to quit writing. I am going to write until the day I die. It will cost me as it already has. But that cost is less expensive than the alternative. God made me this way. It was His good pleasure to put this compulsion and need in me. I really wish I knew the reason why He made me this way. But I don't know. I just know that I have to keep doing this.