I am a big fan of generosity. I love the notion of giving, of gift as interaction and interaction as gift. And I’m a big fan of writing. But it has only recently occurred to me that those might be the same thing.
Naturally, there are many writers whose work felt like a gift to me — Barbara Kingsolver, Wendell Berry, Billy Collins, and many more — but it felt private. It was the emotional counterpart to my teenage habit of hugging a book to my chest as I snuck off somewhere to read (since I was not supposed to be reading but rather doing something “productive” like washing dishes). I cherished the words and the stories and I felt wildly privileged that they spoke to me. To ME! But as I got healthier and wholer, I came to see that the larger political significance I’d always attributed to stories was perhaps the same thing as this deeply personal conversation, just on a broader scale. As these and other writers opened my eyes and my soul to the wider world, and as I learned (ironically, well AFTER my PhD in Comparative Literature) how many other eyes and souls were out there, doors ajar, because of their writing, I came to see that this is their gift to the world. Barbara Kingsolver, in fact, talks about this in a video she did way back when Animal Dreams was first published (which I can’t seem to find today); she says, essentially, that the most important thing she can do for this broken world is to put her butt in chair and write. It’s true, she tends to work on the macro level, I think: witness this excerpt from a conversation with David Gergen about how stories structure and define our world, our nation, our communities:
“DAVID GERGEN: –but through your own novels to invent a new set of stories for us, is that what you’re about?
BARBARA KINGSOLVER: It is in my own little corner. That’s what I’m trying to do. I love what Joseph Campbell said about mythology. He said that our stories are what holds us together as a culture, and as long as they’re true for us, and as long as they work for us, they–we thrive. And when they cease to become true, we fall apart, and we have to reconstruct them or revitalize them. We have to come up with new myths.”
And of course that’s what she does: her stories enable us to connect to the land and the people who work it; to understand the histories of human movements and failures; to imagine ourselves into a capacity for managing heart-wrenching, world-churning change that right now seems certainly fatal. But what’s brilliant about Kingsolver is that she works on the micro level as well. Her characters and her language are so compelling, so utterly moving and hilarious and desperate and comforting, that we can’t help but be drawn in. As a reader, I’m in awe of that.
But now I find myself thinking, for the first times in my life, as a WRITER too. It feels like hubris, and perhaps it is. But I’m slowly, slowly catching up to the notion that when we have a gift to give and we believe in generosity, then we have to give it. Even if it is our writing. Even if it is a painful exposure or a risk or an embarrassment, or whatever it turns out to be. Maybe we have to do it. (I’ve had little angels tell me this before — angels in the sense of folks who show up to say wise things or be there when you need them — the most memorable of which was a guy at a conference in San Francisco years ago who came up to me after I’d spoken in a seminar to ask what my book was called. I said I hadn’t written one, and he asked why not, and then he held my eyes while I squirmed. “This isn’t about ego,” he said. “The world needs to hear what you have to say. You have to get out of the way.”)
So here I am, trying to get out of the way, though a little confused by the whole thing and unsure of what comes next. I am grateful for the readers I have and hopeful for more; I am grateful for the extraordinary writers (novelists, bloggers, poets, and authors of all stripes) who inspire me every day with their bravery and their brilliance. I am grateful, I suppose, for the gift I’m perceiving and for those of you who are out there to give it right back by receiving.