Why Write When There are Thousands of People Out There Not Reading Your Work
In this post, GrubStreet instructor Ben Berman considers the tension between the pleasures of writing and the pressures of being a writer.
The other day we were at some friends’ house when I found myself in a conversation with their six-year-old son.
My dad told me that you’re a writer, he said.
I am, I said.
Then let me ask you something, he said. How come I’ve never read anything you wrote?
That’s a good question, I said.
Think about it, he said, right now there are thousands of people out there who aren’t reading any of your books.
He shook his head and walked away, leaving me all alone in the kitchen.
I grabbed a slice of lukewarm pizza and started laughing to myself – I’d recently published a small new book of short prose and was well aware of all those people out there not reading it. It got me thinking about one of the two recurring dreams that I’d been having as of late, which involved me walking into a bookstore to give a reading and seeing that there was only one person in the audience.
This, in fact, actually happened to me once and though I laughed it off at the time – cracked some joke about the sound of one hand clapping – it was one of those moments that reminds you of the fine the line between humility and humiliating.
We left our friends’ house shortly afterwards, and though it was getting late we decided to give my five-year-old a bath.
Giving my five-year-old a bath is always a bit of a production – she likes to bring trays of Tupperware into the tub with her and pretend like she’s the star of some warped Disney film.
Look, I overheard her say at one point as I was walking by. I know you think that you killed my parents. But I have news for you. You are wrong. It is I who poisoned your parents!
Then she started laughing this evil, maniacal laugh.
I had no idea what the premise of her story was, but I wasn’t about to ask because if she knew that I was eavesdropping she would have immediately stopped the show.
And as I stood in the hallway listening in, I started thinking about the other recurring dream that I’d been having as of late. In this one, I am taking a shower and when I step out I realize that there is a full crowd of people waiting for me to read. I walk up to the podium and not only do I not have my book with me, I’m not wearing any pants.
I had always assumed that this was simply the converse of the first dream – rather than showing up with something to say and finding no one there, I show up with nothing to say and find everyone there.
But as I listened to my daughter play so freely in the bath – her imagination wandering in the most surprising and delightful of ways – I wondered if this dream was actually about the tension between the pleasures of writing and the pressures of being a writer.
On my better days, I’m able to compartmentalize the two. But whenever I'd sit down to write lately I'd find myself worrying about book sales and Goodreads ratings, about the reviews that people were writing and the reviews that people weren’t writing.
My five-year-old was starting to sing some song that could only be described as a ballad to her bum. I couldn’t make out all the lyrics, though, because she was laughing so hard as she belted it out.
And I realized that if I wanted to reclaim the pleasures of writing, I couldn’t worry about all those thousands of people not reading my books. Because that’s not why we write – we write for that single fleeting moment, as Merce Cunningham says, when you feel alive.
Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, was recently selected as a Must-Read by the Mass Center for the Book. And his new book, Then Again, came out last November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters. www.ben-berman.comSee other articles by Ben Berman