Why I write?

andre-aciman-1What my dentist cried out one day after finally removing an unsuspected fourth nerve from one of my molars comes to mind each time I try to understand myself as a writer. Do I, as a writer, have what he called a “hidden nerve”?

Don’t all writers have a hidden nerve, call it a secret chamber, something irreducibly theirs, which stirs their prose and makes it tick and turn this way or that, and identifies them, like a signature, though it lurks far deeper than their style, or their voice or other telltale antics?

A hidden nerve is what every writer is ultimately about. It’s what all writers wish to uncover when writing about themselves in this age of the personal memoir. And yet it’s also the first thing every writer learns to sidestep, to disguise, as though this nerve were a deep and shameful secret that needs to be swathed in many sheaths. Some don’t even know they’ve screened this nerve from their own gaze, let alone another’s. Some crudely mistake confession for introspection. Others, more cunning perhaps, open tempting shortcuts and roundabout passageways, the better to mislead everyone. Some can’t tell whether they’re writing to strip or hide that secret nerve.

I have no idea to which category I belong.

As for a sheath, however, I’d spot mine in a second. It is place. I begin my inward journey by writing about place. Some do so by writing about love, war, suffering, cruelty, power, God or country. I write about place, or the memory of place. I write about a city called Alexandria, which I’m supposed to have loved, and about other cities that remind me of a vanished world to which I allegedly wish to return. I write about exile, remembrance and the passage of time. I write — so it would seem — to recapture, to preserve and return to the past, though I might just as easily be writing to forget and put that past behind me.

And yet my hidden nerve lies quite elsewhere. To work my way closer to it, I’d have to write about loss and feeling unhinged in provisional places where everyone else seems to have a home and a place, and where everyone knows what he wants, who he is and who he’s likely to become.

I may never mention dispersion or evasion by name. But I write around them. I write away from them. I write from them, the way some people write around loneliness, guilt, shame, failure, disloyalty, the better to avoid staring at them.

I write to give my life a form, a narrative, a chronology; and, for good measure, I seal loose ends with cadenced prose and add glitter where I know things were quite lusterless. I write to reach out to the real world, though I know that I write to stay away from a world that is still too real and never as provisional or ambivalent as I’d like it to be. In the end it’s no longer, and perhaps never was, the world that I like, but writing about it. I write to find out who I am; I write to give myself the slip. I write because I am always at one remove from the world but have grown to like saying so.

If I keep writing about places, it is because some of them are coded ways of writing about myself: like me, they are always somewhat dated, isolated, uncertain, thrust precariously in the middle of larger cities, places that have become not just stand-ins for Alexandria, but stand-ins for me. I walk past them and think of me.

We alter the truth on paper so as to alter it in fact; we lie about our past and invent surrogate memories the better to make sense of our lives and live the life we know was truly ours. We write about our life, not to see it as it was, but to see it as we wish others might see it, so we may borrow their gaze and begin to see our life through their eyes, not ours.

Only then, perhaps, would we begin to understand our life story, or to tolerate it and ultimately, perhaps, to find it beautiful; not that any life is ever beautiful, but the measure of a beautiful life is perhaps one that sees its blemishes, knows they can’t be forgiven and, for all that, learns each day to look the other way.

(These are excerpts from an article titled, ‘A Literary Pilgrim Progresses to the Past’ which was published in The New York Times on August 28, 2000.)

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