Damn the Writers, Maybe

Or Should You be a Surgeon or a Poet?

E.B. White and Pup, Courtesy of Cornell University

A frequent worry of mine is that my impact upon the world will, in the final analysis, result in nothing. I don’t mean that I worry about not leaving some sort of grand legacy or long spoken of genius, rather I worry that my chosen field of interest, letters and stringing them together in funny ways, is a rather feckless way of contributing to All This. Assuming, as I do, that I’m in for one honest crack at this living thing, is there not a more worthy way of spending my single allotment of DNA and consciousness? Am I a fool for fretting over the placement of commas and colons when I could be setting broken bones or repairing the hearts of unlucky kiddos?

Writing is, in fact, important work. Writing is how we know about the psyche and worldview of the Ancients, how we’ve passed down knowledge and ideas for centuries, how we calmly and eloquently describe what can’t easily be described aloud. Some of history’s great geniuses have been writers: Plato, Shakespeare, Montaigne, the Brontës, Proust, Hemingway, Foster Wallace. Geniuses, all of them. And all of them geniuses because of their exceptional ability to string together words in such a way that provokes acute emotions, ideas, and images. That’s a skill as fine as any other. Each of those writers made a lasting and progressive impact upon humanity, upon the long arc of intellectual evolution. But the terrible majority of writers will never come one-millionth as close as Shakespeare did to changing the world for the better. The average writer could instead blog at night and on the weekends instead of eking out a meager living while writing full time, so he or she could do social work or run for Congress or teach kids or study Oncology.

I can’t help but wrangle with this dilemma.

The world would be, objectively, an awful wasteland of a place if there were no pie-in-the-sky creatives: painters and novelists and poets and playwrights and sculptors and filmmakers and cartoonists and comedians. We need art and creativity to enjoy life just as much as we need oxygen in our lungs, our hearts pumping blood through our veins, and coffee when we get out of bed in the morning. That need cannot be underrated. Art and creativity have often proven to be the last bastion against ill-doers and reactionary tides. Nothing stops a fascist like a truly sardonic comedian. Nothing undoes the whims of a bully better than a well-timed bit of satire. The serious men and women of government and business and armed forces are the tangible counterforces to wrongdoing, but when things are bleak, when the Luftwaffe is raining fire down on London or religious extremists spray pieces of lead in the innocent, it is, more often than not, the creative ones that lift our personal and collective spirits. The government, big business never really raise our spirits. A great speech by a head of state is a fine thing, and maybe that’ll rally people for a little while. Maybe. But there isn’t always a Lincoln or a Churchill or a Roosevelt or a Kennedy to call upon to deliver the strong brew. However, there has always been and will always be some foolish man or woman with a pen or a paintbrush to really set the record straight.

For me, this is the essential quandary of a creative life: the desire to improve the world in a tangible way, versus a desire to try to enrich the world with some sort of art. E.B. White was more succinct when he put a similar anxiety thusly, “I am torn between a desire to change the world and a desire to enjoy it.”

This might well be an unsolvable issue. Perhaps the trick is to just shut up and do the best damn job you can do, no matter if you’re plumbing or cooking or writing or singing or vacuuming or piecing skulls back together. That seems a stoical way of going about it, and I’ve always been prone to siding with the Stoics. Or perhaps one must weigh the possible good versus the possible lack-of-good a certain line of work promises, like a Utilitarian might view it. I’m not very sympathetic to Utilitarians on that front. However you choose to weigh the good of your gig versus the possible good of another, the fact of the matter is that the world wouldn’t work if we were all surgeons or if we were all social workers. Maybe we’d all be healthier, but none of us would want to live.