Early this week I was reprimanded by a lifeguard at the YMCA for having knocked overly aggressively on the locked door between the showers and the pool. It was 1:05pm, and the door should’ve been open for Family/Lap Swim. I knocked loudly, twice, and waited maybe a total of one minute for her to answer the door (there’s a window in the door, but she wasn’t visible), and when she answered it, she immediately laid into me: “Here I am, fine, alright, I heard you, sorry you had to wait for like one minute while I peed [note: not verbatim].” I then spent the entirety of my swim thinking about this poor young lifeguard—being upset with her, debating if I should confront her and explain what a prick she’d been, or complain to her boss about her and attempt to have her job threatened, or slash her tires in the parking lot, etc. I tried to force myself to think kind thoughts, to ease myself through some empathetic process, but mostly I seethed. I have to imagine she spent some quantum of time/energy as I swam thinking equally dark thoughts about me. Perhaps she hoped I’d drown.
The question why write is easy enough: there aren’t many good reasons (not money, not fame, not love), and I find it easier to answer in the negative: one shouldn’t. Like religion, the utility of writing depends on faith. I’m personally tempted by the prompt why write because, honestly, I’ve yet to find a satisfying answer that sticks. I regularly doubt the purpose or value of the enterprise. I don’t think that’s going away.
Yet the ultimate answer to why write is for me contained in the phrase for the relief of self. Having a self is all sorts of wonderful, obviously. And yet [see above], all of that—each lap’s-worth of thinking nasty thoughts about this stupid, ugly lifeguard who probably had a stupid, ugly name and boyfriend and life, almost an hour spent cogitating on this dumb exchange between me and this lifeguard, this stranger—had to do with having a self. She’d pounced on my aggressive knocking because of her self, and I’d knocked loudly, quickly, because of my self. My desire to swim, my reluctance to walk back up the staircase and through the Y’s interior, dripping wet and embarrassed in my Speedo and back hair and not-perfect abs to ask someone at the front desk what what going on, met with her desire to pee in peace, her (totally fair) belief that five minutes to herself in the middle (I assume) of a shift as a life guard was legitimate and reasonable, and the result was both of us getting pissed off.
To be clear: writing doesn’t make such events easier or better, and I think the requisite empathy that’d keep me from going through life getting inordinately pissed at such shit is largely a matter of age and patience (that is, anyway, what I choose to believe). But the answer to why write hasn’t a thing to do with empathy. Empathy may end up being a byproduct of writing, but empathy can’t be the actual or exclusive goal of writing (and even if it was, volunteering offers a larger dose of empathy, meaning if your answer for why write is to learn empathy it’d seem you’d be better off in an apron, a ladle your tool rather than a laptop).
What writing is is a chance for me to diminish myself to the point of inconsequentiality, to shake free of the self I walk around trapped within like some shitty bell that often rings ugly. Easy statement: I am me. All of us are us. And yet the slight but overwhelmingly powerful magic offered by writing seems a magic having to do with disposing of or diminishing the self, with stepping away from the crowded stinky tent in which the churn of identity and wanting plays out, with moving into a quieter spot unencumbered with questions of meaning, of intent, of who are you and why do it that way and etc.
There’s a band called Golden Smog, made of members of the Jayhawks and Wilco and Soul Asylum and some others, and the t-shirt of theirs I had in 1996 featured on its back a line from Gary Louris, one of their singers: “A need to distance ourselves from ourselves.” Maybe that seems silly or odd to even wish for. That, though—silly or whatever else it may be—is my answer (at present) to why write.
WESTON CUTTER is from Minnesota and is the author of All Black Everything and You’d Be a Stranger, Too. He runs the book review website Corduroy Books.