By Cara Hillstock
Morbach, Germany, 2013: I’m lying on a bed in a spare bedroom, listening to my grandfather watching odd sketch comedies in the living room and my grandmother watering flowers on the balcony. The clock tower of our village chimes one in the afternoon, and I almost fall off the bed. The collection of short horror stories I was reading was so creepy, I have to see what the author had to say about them. But when I turn to the afterword, I find this instead:
"Writers love their words. They have to. They spend much of their time isolated, hunched over a keyboard, squatting at a screen until their eyes burn and their spines scream and their wrists stiffen in protest. And all they have to show for the sacrifice is a scattering of glyphs that sometimes seems to have no meaning in any language. To then assume that barrage of symbols will take on a comprehensive narrative and satisfying arc is truly an act of arrogance.
"But writers go one step further—we expect people to not only read the words, to not only piece them together into a coherent story, but we demand adoration for our act. And, occasionally, a little bit of cold coin." — Afterword: From the Ashes, Ashes, Scott Nicholson
Reading this set off a surge of anger that I could only communicate to my grandmother through a flurry of inarticulate German-esque sputtering. After she walked away, shaking her head, I had to sit for a little bit to calm down and figure out why, exactly, I was so bothered.
The author acknowledges the arrogance of writing directly, before anyone has the chance to call him out on it—as if to say that because he knows what he’s doing is stupid, it’s okay. He knows writing is dispensable in our culture and that to “demand adoration” for it is ludicrous when placed in a practical context. So he beats you to the punch. Nicholson’s afterword taps into a kind of defense, a maneuver many artists tend to use when faced with the fact that their craft has no practical value to the world. Writing isn’t growing food, it’s not tending to wounds, it’s not building houses. Artists spend their whole lives subject to a barrage of criticism because they should have a “real job,” something helpful that contributes to the future of society, or at least our wallets—teaching, managing, or accounting. It’s no wonder we are on the defensive about our art. But why do we feel the need to defend ourselves in our books, in our journals, in the confines of our own heads? Why do we feel the need to justify ourselves and our craft, even when no one is asking?
It is obvious that one who writes is one who believes himself or herself worthy of having written. We write because we believe we have something to say, something worth reading. It’s arrogant — not because we presume that our worthless selves have something important to say, but because everybody in this world has something equally meaningful to say, and we’re just the assholes who think we deserve to be published for it. We’re not doing anything special, or particularly important. In this, Nicholson’s afterword has a point.
But when confronted with the reality of the selfishness and lack of practical value of our craft, we try to pretend it’s somehow a noble and selfless endeavor. To make ourselves feel less like terrible people for choosing to do something that has personal value to ourselves but not to the practical world at large, we try to fool ourselves into thinking we are writing to set the world “right” in some small way. We force in morals and lessons. We add token minorities. We side-eye the future of the planet. We stop writing what is natural to us and instead hope to change the world and make it more accepting, or fair, or just. Miniatures of The Celestine Prophecy, small moments like the woman in Housewife Down who is respected during her trip to India – unlike the vain women who flew with her – because she looked up the dress code before going.
Writing is selfish. We write because we have something to say, and because we feel the need to get something out. We write because it feels good to us, not necessarily to other people. We can’t avoid this reality. Even when we present people with a new perspective in the hopes that they’ll learn something from what we’ve written, we’re generally hoping they’ll shift their perspective closer towards what we think is right. Even when we hope what we say will have some impact, we’re still waiting for other people to take the action.
Cara Hillstock is a junior in English with an emphasis in creative writing. She is currently writing for a top-secret video game collaboration and will appear in the movie Hell Town.