The writer’s search for meaning–in text and in life

One of the biggest insults I’ve ever received was meant to be a compliment. When discussing with someone what I consider my life vocation (writing), he/she responded that he/she was as upset as I was that society often doesn’t see value in the arts. He/she responded that when he/she was done with his/her day’s work, he/she needed the arts to provide a venue of entertainment; there was value in bringing people comfort in this way.

In the moment, I smiled, speechless in my own existential turmoil over the worthiness of my vocation, as a well of deeply buried fury began to bubble inside me. While this person actually meant to soothe the sense of existential turmoil I’d revealed about the meaningfulness of my own writing, he/she had hit a nerve. The question is not: what is the meaning of life? to me, but instead, it is: what is the meaning of fiction–of the fictions we create on a day-to-day basis and of the literature we produce?

*     *     *

In an effort to defend literature, I’ve heard people argue for its didactic value (which we can see in journalism, textbooks, theory books, non-fiction how-to guides, etc) and its entertainment value (fluff pieces meant to distract us from the troubles of the world, small pieces to make us laugh). There is, of course, a place for these two things. I, too, value them, and I think there is meaning to be found in a life devoted to creating them.

But the existential crisis I have been reeling toward over the past several years is this: I prefer, as it were, to write about the ‘tough stuff.’ My inheritance as a writer and as a person came in a the form of fragmented narratives my grandmother told me about her life in the former Yugoslavia before, during, and after World War II–and my mother’s stories of immigration to Connecticut as a child. These stories–not my own–propelled me to write and pursue an MFA; I was drawn to fiction because I felt a greater truth existed when I placed myself in my mother and grandmother’s shoes and imagined–and made up–details and plot twists, leaving behind a strict fidelity to what really happened. In essence, I rejected the didactic testimony (“I will detail to you what happened so you will know the facts of what I’ve experienced”) in favor of shaping those events in my own mind and heart toward some kind of meaning. After all, as Viktor Frankl writes in Man’s Search for Meaning, it is not the events of a life (or story) that are inherently imbibed with meaning; it is the individual’s ability to interpret significance and assign worth that constitute meaning. Thus, I have believed that merely writing without a sense of purpose is useless, as it can only ever be, expressly didactic or entertaining–and I, and many other writers I know, strive for much more.

Put differently: You cannot hit a reader with a list of terrible things that happened to someone and expect that reader to do anything but fact-gather from the experience and walk away. Most readers won’t even be willing to sit through a 200+ page account of terrible things; many mediocre writers know this and thus help trauma survivors create narratives that play on emotions (drama, tragedy), relying on previously scripted and accepted narratives: insert trauma here; evoke emotion here; succeed in creating mildly traumatizing but somehow entertaining reading experience; package and sell for $14.95. Impact: minor, oftentimes forgettable. I generally dislike these sorts of books; you know the kind–they come out months or a year after a major event and seek, most often, to capitalize on a media frenzy in hopes of selling copies. The greater tragedy is that many of these stories are worthwhile–and, had the writer waited a few years to have adequate space to reflect, he or she could have presented the events of the story in way that transcends didacticism and entertainment. Again, I turn to Frankl, who writes: “Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…” I would similarly assert that if your aim as a writer is to move readers in a way so as to inspire action, you have a limited chance of success. Inspiration, and true connection, between written narrative and the reader occurs when it ensues and is not pursued.

That’s because the best writing reaches toward the universal–so that somehow, we can see ourselves in characters unlike us. How else can we explain the connection that Azar Nafisi‘s students in Iran had to authors like Henry James and Jane Austen–so far removed historically, socially, and culturally from their present situation? Or the fact that one of my memoir writing professors–who wrote about her memoir about getting pregnant at 16–received letters from many readers who saw themselves in her–despite the fact that they came from different states, economic brackets, different families–and had never been pregnant? Good writing reveals that connection with the universal; it lifts a mirror to human nature so that we can see pieces of ourselves and make meaning of the world around us regardless of genre.

The reach of bibliotherapy, practiced by so many informally, is real: simply reading a well-written book about someone else’s quest for meaning in the world has had proven, long-term effects with relieving depression for some readers. And I’m not talking about a “How-To” book that prescribes life actions; I’m talking about literature: the art of the metaphor: the way that writers, knowing the meaning their characters are aching to find, give the readers just enough information to connect the dots themselves without doing it for them–simultaneously requiring the reader to be active, not passive, in the process of reading while also leaving room for each reader’s experience to expand in a way that is most meaningful to him/her. In this way, there is as much value in a memoir that speaks thoughtfully about the existence of suffering in the world and how the author overcame it (Frankl) as a novel that borrow from science fiction and refers to war and other worlds with humor (say, Vonnegut). Meaning can be serious, happy, contemplative, sad, or laugh-out-loud funny. Entertainment and teaching ensue at times–but not because they were pursued as a primary goal by the writer.

*     *     *

I return, now, to the conversation that inspired the months of thinking that resulted in this post. I hesitate to supply the gender of this individual with whom I spoke, the timing of this conversation, or  the context of the relationship I have with this person, much less his/her vocation (which is quite noble); in fact, I respect this person, and his/her work and ambitions immensely. And it is because I so respect the work of others that has a direct, quantifiable impact on people–doctors, nurses, lawyers, politicians, activists, anyone in a ‘helping profession’–that I often feel uneasy about my work as a writer. In fact, I respect this type of work so much that I’ve contemplated giving up writing to do any one of these things, researching nursing programs and even buying an LSAT prep books and studying them.

This instinct is why, perhaps, I initially pushed aside fiction and pursued a career in journalism. I could help people more if I was a reporter, I could hold up a mirror to the world’s injustices and using my writing skills, allow people to see and understand things they might not have otherwise. I also respect many journalists–particularly those who are thoughtful and take great person or physical risks to bring truth to light that helps shape public opinion and public policy.

But in the end, I could not deny  my urge:  I am a writer of fiction–one who toils over craft, erasing sentences, deleting paragraphs and pages, spending days dreaming up a single line of prose, and in an epiphany of love and self-loathing, sit at my computer and create a world in which meaning is exists, drafting in bursts of 10 – 20 pages at time.

There is no parity in quantifiable terms between my vocation and that of my sister’s, for example; she is a brilliant mind, and as a medical school student, she sacrifices much to study so that she may one day help others; she always puts other before herself.

Among the many things I admire about my sister, however, is her unique ability to affirm her vocation while not disparaging mine, and vice versa; going into her first year at MIT, she asked for a reading list and dutifully read a dozen long novels that I’d given her. She found meaning in the equations of her chemistry major but also in the books she read, eventually earning a dual degree in chemistry and humanities, and agreeing with me that the meaning of life maybe really could be summed up in the  contemplation of a Persian rug. She has often made me feel that my work is as valuable as hers–albeit in a different way–and for this, I am beyond grateful.

You cannot gather up and quantify the impact of a good book, and thus it is often easy to dismiss literature–or to see it only for its quasi-quantifiable parts (teaching, entertainment value). But like the quest for meaning itself, literature is more the result of an alchemy than a science. Dissecting a social interaction or coming up with an adequate explanation for a break-up, for example, has never been satisfying. But give me a single page of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, and life starts to make sense again.

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