Friday, August 21, 2015

Jerry Gabriel and the Crux of the Impulse

In the 16th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Jerry Gabriel, author of The Let Go (Queen's Ferry Press), explores his drive to write.

For various reasons, I have been thinking lately about where the impulse to write stories even comes from, in part because it seems at once wide-spread—there doesn’t seem to be just one or even a hundred “types” of people who want to (or do) write stories—but also generally frowned upon—as an indulgence, a frivolous hobby, and worst of all, an economic liability. No parent-in-law-to-be that I know of is happy to hear that their future daughter- or son-in-law is a novelist, let alone a short story writer or, god forbid, a poet.

So there is this tension about the act of writing on a cultural level, and probably as a result of that—at least for many—on a personal level.

When I first started to encounter contemporary fiction (I came to reading late, around 20), I was electrified by the ways it caused me to think and see and feel differently. I was receptive to the discomfort that frequently accompanies literary fiction, because I wanted to understand everything about the world—every inscrutable decision that people in my life had made, every masked behavior I guessed was happening just out of view, every fear and hope that people possess. And, too, I wanted to see into my own somewhat ineffable motivations and longings. Almost from the start, I understood reading fiction—in addition to its other charms—as a means of accomplishing some of this. I don’t think I was wrong to do so.

And once I had had this kind of experience—let’s call it insight, the nebulous rat pellet we get from engaging with a book (or any piece of art, really)—I wanted to have it every day. I reasoned that if reading could give this to you, then writing had to be an even better vehicle. So I started writing—hadn’t been a reader for more than a year or two probably. But I was drawn inexorably toward what I was beginning to see as the magic of a created world that was perhaps not quite our world but that somehow reflected it, somehow allowed us to see ourselves from the outside. I wasn’t any good at conjuring this magic, of course, but this, I think, was the crux of the impulse—getting outside of myself. And I think it still is, another twenty plus years later.

Anne Tyler has said, “I write because I want to live more than one life.” For me, this is exactly the thing, and it is these other lives that I’m after, both as a reader and a writer. Has reading and writing fiction made me into a better person? I’m not sure I would say that, at least not here. But I would say that it’s made the world a bigger and richer place for me, and has allowed me—continues to allow me—to come to better understand or better see or better feel, sometimes consciously, frequently not, who we are and why we do the things we do. It is a kind of learning, of course, but it is not just learning, but something else, a visceral catharsis. On the best days, anyway.

Obviously people write for lots of different reasons. This is my current best stab at why I do.