The Human Condition:

Something Outside Yourself – February 19, 2017

Shelf of books

The other night I was watching a movie about an unhappy woman, actually three unhappy women. It doesn’t matter which movie it was, because it seems that these days all the movies and books are about unhappy people—except for science fiction, where people are usually running or fighting for their lives, and movies based on comic books, where the main characters are superheroes with no personal problems at all who are fighting each other.1

Anyway, at one point in the movie I said to myself, “This woman needs to go write a book.” Not, mind you, not a book about her unhappy life, her frustrations, her poor choices, and her existential ennui. God, no! But a book about something other than and outside of herself, like the conflicts and eccentricities of the Tudor dynasty, or the life cycle of the sand flea, or the probability of finding life on Mars. “Go write a book”—that’s my solution to life’s problems and the greater issue of life’s existential meaning.

This is because, since the age of sixteen or maybe even a few years before that, I have felt the psychological pressure to write novels. No, rather, I have accepted the psychological burden of knowing that my purpose in life was to line bookshelves, to tell stories in the 60,000-word range, to invent unreal people in unreal situations and then observe and report on them. Whatever you want to call this activity, it has been part of my function in life which I have totally accepted and left unquestioned and unexamined. My daily business for as long as I can remember has been to eat and sleep, bathe and groom, exercise for health reasons,2 attend to the paying job and all its obligations,3 take care of the family, read for pleasure, do household chores, walk the dog, plus think about the book currently in hand and make time to sit down and push the page marker forward.

My books don’t have a message; I’m not promoting a political or economic agenda. They are not a reflection of my life; I’m not trying to tell my story or explain my point of view. Other than the fact that the plots and characters come out of my own thoughts and experiences, and so must reflect something of the way I think and feel, these are people and situations meant to stand on their own. The books come through me, like light through a prism. I have no sense of actually originating them, and when they are finished, I feel no special glow of recognition for them.

Whether these books are good or bad is really not my concern.4 I work on the story and the text until they are as good as I can make them. When I’m done, the book is as good as it can be. But whether other people will find it good, or interesting, or worth reading … that’s not something I can control. Whether the book will sell and make money is a matter of speculation, not purpose. If an agent or editor told me I would sell x percent more copies or make y percent more money by writing in a different way, or in another genre, or taking the story in a different direction5 … that’s not something I can really do. The stories are coming through me, originating outside my conscious control—if anywhere, from the depths of my subconscious—and I’m not the master of that process.

I did not intend this meditation to be an explanation of my writing process, other than to show it is something outside myself. The act of writing and completing a book exists, for me, as something more important and more meaningful than what I am thinking or how I am feeling at any one time. If I am feeling lazy, bored, or sad at the current moment, I cannot invigorate myself or cheer myself up by turning to the writing—not unless I already have an outline in hand and the story is active in my brain, insisting that it be written. And when the story is “hot” and ready to be told, it doesn’t matter if I’m sad or tired. I must drop what I’m doing, go to the keyboard, and start telling it. All I know is that, at the end of the day, if I have solved a knotty plot problem with a solid patch of outline, or written a scene that worked and advanced the marker—or, when I was at the paying job, had just finished writing a long and technically important article or procedure—then I know a sense of peace. For that day, at least, I have fulfilled my purpose. The internal word tank is empty, and a new idea has been made real on the screen, in the file, eventually to appear on another screen or on paper for someone else to read.

When I tell the unhappy women in that movie they should “go write a book,” what I mean is they should find something bigger, more important, more involving than their own lives, something outside of themselves which demands attention and offers fulfillment. They should find that thing and surrender to it, dedicate their lives to it, leaving it unquestioned and unexamined. I say this not because they are women—oh, no!—but because they are human beings. For some women, taking care of their children and their families are a greater purpose in life. Just as, for some men and women, building a professional career and making money are that greater purpose. But if someone can take up those burdens and still feel angst and ennui, then I would place children or career among those basic life tasks along with exercising, doing household chores, and walking the dog.

For Michelangelo, the greater purpose was the Sistine Chapel ceiling and, also, releasing heroic figures trapped in marble. For Mother Teresa, it was helping the poor of Calcutta. For some people, it’s volunteering in the community, taking up a political cause, acting in amateur theatricals, or making music. For some, it is becoming a good soldier, or a surgeon, or the Wichita lineman. The point is, the undertaking must be active, not passive, and the effort must be all-consuming, not a pastime. It must be the thing that, when you are doing it, you live more brilliantly; when you are unable or prevented from doing it, you die by inches. For some people, it is enough to ask God to reveal their place in His plan—but for me, that’s like waiting to conceive the plot and characters of the next book, which will take me through the next twelve to eighteen months to complete.

The tragedy of the human condition is that life on Earth has no particular purpose. Your father’s sperm met and fertilized your mother’s egg, and so you are here. At a greater remove, DNA acquired the ability to encode and retain certain protein sequences—or, if it misplaced them, to invent new ones—and so life appeared. For all plants and the vast majority of animals, this is enough. Eat and sleep, groom, fight, and reproduce are all the purpose their lives need; the animal’s occupation and its goal are simply survival. But for human beings—and maybe for dolphins, whales, and elephants, too—with our larger and more complex brains that engender self-awareness and raise questions, mere survival is not enough. Because we conceive of ourselves as unique beings, and not replications of a species type, we seek for ourselves a unique purpose, something of our own to do, greater than survival.

Life itself, mere existence, will not give you this purpose. It is our greatest freedom—and life’s great trap—that each person must choose and decide for him- or herself what purpose, what destiny, this life will fulfill. It does not have to change the world or leave a monument to which others will look up and offer praise. It does not even have to be something that others will understand. And it may not be something that you have bravely and consciously chosen for yourself. My focus on books came, I think, from my grandfather’s love of reading and collecting certain authors. And then, somewhere in there, someone else in the family—perhaps my father—might have praised the works of a particular author. And I do remember reading, at a young age, that Nathaniel Hawthorne once told his mother he did not think he would be much good at the law or medicine, but what if he could give her a nice little shelf of books to read?

In this way, grandparents, parents, families, and teachers shape and point the earliest ideas of young children. They place the notions and start them spinning to become lifelong passions. And those of us who grow up to follow those passions risk everything—love, health, sanity, and even life itself—to fulfill them. And we are thereby fulfilled.

1. All right, the movie I was watching was The Girl on the Train. It’s about three women immersed in their own problems, which they eventually find out are the same problem. Plus, of course, booze is involved.

2. Because I do karate katas as a form of aerobic exercise, the workout also helps maintain my balance, coordination, flexibility, and psychological preparedness against attack.

3. Or this was part of my life until I retired. Now the book writing is my day job. It doesn’t pay much, but that’s not the point.

4. Here I am reminded of the line in C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters: “A man is not usually called upon to have an opinion of his own talents at all, since he can very well go on improving them to the best of his ability without deciding on his own precise niche in the temple of Fame.” I find that thought comforting.

5. For a while, at Baen Books, I wrote collaborations at the direction of the publisher. That is, I accepted an outline and partial notes—in whatever state of preparation—from a senior author and sat down to write the book; then the senior author would get a chance to read and correct it. I found this process tremendously instructive, because it gave me insight into how other authors think and prepare. These weren’t my books, of course, but like the books I wanted to write, they came from somewhere outside myself, and I could do the work. And no, they didn’t make much more money than the novels that came out of my own head.