Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Another round of "why do I still write with all these doubts?"--this time, the lightning round

From the beginning, this blog has been as much about why I might be better off just giving writing up as it has been about finding my way to elusive success--whatever "success" is. Last month, I finished a trilogy of posts on perfectly sound reasons why writing stories might not be the most useful way for me to spend my life. (Part One, Part Two, Part Three) But I'd already said similar things over two years before that. My attraction to literature has always been coupled with a doubt about literature's utility. When I wrote that earlier piece on doubts about writing, I followed it up with my best answers I could give to the obvious question: Well, if you doubt so much, why do you still write? Answers here and here.

Here, I present a shorter answer to the "Why do I still write, then?" question. This is an answer I actually give myself often when I get up in the morning to work on a story before work.

Vonnegut's Kilgore Trout

I had read a little Vonnegut early in life, but it's only been in the last few years I really tore through a lot of his work. I was doing this at the same time I was trying to make my mid-life push to accomplish my early-life dream of being a writer. It turned out that Vonnegut was the perfect writer to read while questioning whether writing was worth doing even though the odds seemed pretty good nobody would ever read me. You can look up a lot of the details about Kilgore Trout here, but the short version is this: He's a reoccurring character in Vonnegut's novels. He's a failed science fiction writer. He has good ideas but his writing is kind of terrible. Most of his work appears as filler in skin magazines, just text to fill out the volume enough to allow the press to put a spine on it. He lives in ignominy and abject failure. But somehow, his work always seems to find its way into the hands of some character who is influenced by it in some profound way that alters world history. True, it's usually to alter history in a bad way, but that isn't entirely Trout's fault. Trout's details are a little different in every novel he appears in, but the one that most influences me is the Trout of Breakfast of Champions. There are three passages from this book that have a lot to do with why I keep hacking away at what is almost certainly a pointless hobby:

1. "He tried." Before Kilgore Trout's twist-of-fate in Breakfast of Champions, he is thinking of what he wants on his tombstone. This is his choice:

(Sometime - Sometime)

"He tried"

I find that kind of naked failure somehow noble. Failure is almost inevitable for a writer. I don't mean primarily commercial failure; Trout's ignominy commercially is just a symbol for the larger failure of every writer to say something worth saying. To try anyway, to really put your best effort into a monument to your own failure...somehow, that's enough to get me back to putting my own epitaph on my own pathetic grave.
2. Trout's answer to the "why write?" question. Trout encounters the big question, of all places, scrawled on a bathroom wall. Someone has graffitied "What is the purpose of life?" on the wall. Trout answers it in a way that also answers the "Why write?" question. "To be the eyes and ears and conscience of the Creator of the Universe, you fool." Agreed. Since the Creator of the Universe seems to have abdicated the responsibility to do have eyes, ears, and a conscience, it's up to the creation to do it for Him.

3. Trout's ownership of his failure: In Breakfast of Champions, Trout is invited to an arts festival by a mentally deranged man who thinks Trout is the greatest living writer. Trout considers not going, because he knows he is not a good writer. He eventually makes up his mind to go, however, and this is why: "I'm going out there to show them what nobody has ever seen at an arts festival before: a representative of all the thousands of artists who devoted their entire lives to a search for truth and beauty--and didn't find doodley-squat!" 

So there you have it: my three quasi-nihilistic inspirations I draw from Kilgore Trout that keep me writing, in spite of my ability to write endless prose about why writing is a waste of time. I doubt you'll get this kind of inspiration at Positive Writer, a wretchedly optimistic blog dedicated to convincing writers that they are A-okay. It's written by a guy who, from what I can tell on Amazon, has ONLY written books about how you can be a writer. That's not what we're about here at Heretic. We're not so much "You can do it!" as we are about "You probably can't do it, now get back to work!"


  1. The meta-author sounds like an idiot who's found sales in the self-help genre. If only we could lack the integrity to engage in such deception of self or others!

    I'd put the writing project down to two things: form and content. If you can do form, that's sometimes better than content. If you can do content, that's great, but often not enough (Dreiser's American Tragedy is an exception). If you can do form and content, well, then more power to you. But form is not all bad. Perhaps you can do great paintings that don't have much to say. That's not half bad. Perhaps your language is beautiful and daring and interesting: well, who cares what you have to say, but, if you happen to mean something, all the better! So keep writing till at least the form gets perfect.

    1. Unfortunately, I don't think form is my strong suit.