I’ve been a writer all my life. I wrote my first “book” when I was around six. I transcribed it onto ditto sheets, so my mother could run off copies at work. (If you have any idea what I’m talking about, congratulations: you’re old, too.) It was a short story with illustrations. Once I had my copies, I gave them out to everyone I knew.
When I was in high school, I was inducted to National Honor Society. Every year they did a “tag day” fundraiser. The students would stand on street corners in town and ask for money. If you donated, they gave you a “tag” you could wear, so nobody else would ask you for money, I suppose. The money went to a scholarship fund. So the NHS students were begging on street corners, raising money for scholarships that would certainly only go to NHS students. I found this embarrassing and degrading and I wanted nothing to do with it. So I wrote an open letter of protest, made 100 copies, and left the stack in the teacher’s lounge. (They made tag day participation optional.)
In college, I wrote an op-ed column for the school paper. I wrote about topics that interested me, which was pretty much just school and sex. I mocked the work-study students who staged a “labor action.” I mocked the women from the neighboring “secretary school” who came to frat parties at our engineering college looking for husband material. I mocked the teachers. I mocked the admissions department, which then threatened to sue me.
When I entered the workforce, I wrote position papers. I attacked the status quo of defense modeling and simulation mercilessly.
I’ve blogged on and off since blogging was a thing. I write yelp reviews. I blog for my company now and then (although they rarely publish anything I write, because it scares and/or bores them).
Why the hell do I write so much?
And why do I write about topics that inflame and degrade and expose myself and others?
A certain individual in my life, whom I love more than anything, more than life itself, is “mortified” by what I write. And yet, here I am, writing.
It is an imperative. I have to write. And I’ve been thinking about why that is. It’s not for the money. I’ve never earned a cent from my blog or my tweets or those columns or letters or position papers. My situation is similar to an actor in community theater. Why spend all that time rehearsing, in order to stand up and perform? Or an amateur musician playing in a garage band, hoping for a gig, any gig, where people can hear you play. Why? Or the local artist friend I have who puts her paintings on display at the library, with no intention of selling them. Why?
It’s all the same thing. You might call it love or passion, but I’m inclined to view it a little more clinically. It’s skydiving.
We are taking an enormous risk, and in exchange, we get an enormous high. And like any “chasing the high” situation, our risks need to increase over time. Writing about something safe is skydiving from a stool. Writing and not publishing is putting on a parachute, then sitting on a couch to watch TV. You have to take the risk, or you don’t get the reward.
I have an addictive personality. Twenty-five years ago, the thing I liked most about smoking was the first cigarette of the day. The fixer. I’m addicted to human contact in the same way. A single touch gives me a rush of endorphins, as strong as any drug could. Getting lost in the throes of passion will sustain me on a euphoric high for a day or more. And I’m addicted to writing.
Although I am prone to addiction, I am also ridiculously good at giving up my addictions. When my college girlfriend, who had asthma, was ready to move in with me, I had to stop smoking. So I did. Just. Stopped. Although I very much enjoy the endorphin rush, I don’t need it. For me, addiction is a nice-to-have, not a have-to-have.
So I could just stop writing. The imperative is self-imposed.
But I will not stop writing. Because I just don’t see the harm. When I write about sex, and it becomes crystal clear that, deep down, I’m a 14-year-old boy, I’m OK with that. I’m not embarrassed by that. It is who I am.
When I write about how much I love and adore my wife, I’m not telling you anything that I wouldn’t tell anyone who would listen. I remember being at a party a few years ago, and meeting a new person, and the first thing I told him was “I am the luckiest man in the world.” He was taken aback. He looked around, saw my house, my yard, my family, and concurred. I am the luckiest man in the world, and that fact occupies enough space in my brain that it’s frequently what I want to write about.
Sometimes, we have to decide whether to be true to our own nature, or change who we are to please others. And it’s never a simple decision. Sometimes changing is the right thing to do. Smoking was harmful to myself and those around me, so that was a relatively easy decision. My wife cannot stand the smell of coffee, and I’m seriously considering whether that addiction is worth the trouble it causes me. But writing is the one addiction I’ve had my whole life that I’ve never even considered giving up. And by “writing,” I mean writing funny, embarrassing, provocative things that are edgy and risky enough that they matter. I don’t want to give that up. Writing is the addiction I’d like to keep.