Quitting Never Occurred to Us

“I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.” -Mother Teresa

We live in a world of sci-fi robot airplanes ripping human beings to shreds; deforestation; climate change; amoral banking hives that deprive the majority while living in gaudy excess; global militant violence and genocide. All this, and still we must come to terms with the brevity of our own inhale of everything that is and was and will be, this thing called life.  In response to the current state of affairs on planet Earth, I don’t find cynicism wholly inappropriate.

So when Philip Roth indirectly announced his retirement from writing to debut novelist Julian Tepper by telling Tepper to quit writing, because it was “[j]ust torture,” it didn’t surprise me that Roth would say such a thing.

In a torturous existence, why are writers willfully torturing themselves for infinitesimal gain?

By now it’s clear that I’m not a very successful optimist.  But this is precisely why a positive voice–as unsettlingly cheerful as we may find it–can be so vital for the pessimists and cynics, if only for the sake of a balanced perspective.

Enter Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert.

Gilbert’s response to Roth, essentially, was: Get over yourself.

And it’s important to point out, as Gilbert does, that of all the awful things people might endure day to day, it’s laughable to consider writing a significant addition to that list–even in passing in a New York deli.

But that isn’t to say Roth’s “advice” to Tepper is flat out wrong, in a certain context.  Writing can seem like a form of self-inflicted torture, as often as it is a joy and a wonder, often more so. Precisely because we “ain’t saving the planet,” as Gilbert says, the act of writing can seem all the more inane. If we’re going to toil away our minds like this, why not do it somehow more significantly? Why not join Roth and take his advice? Just quit.

My answer is that I can’t quit. It isn’t pleasant work most of the time. I cling to islands of good moments in an entire ocean of grasping confusion. I’m afraid I’m drowning in my own childish mind.

For me, writing is not purely love or hate. It’s Stockholm Syndrome in its most intense. It’s a twisted, bound yearning for a rare truth. Even if the search for that truth is demented at best.

Gilbert is right. You’re unlikely to suffer on-the-job injuries at your keyboard, carpal tunnel and deteriorating vision aside. Unless you’re a staff writer at a newspaper, your workplace freedom is so vast that putting on clothes is optional.

But then, I suspect that at least at some point in time Roth felt as I do about writing. It’s hard to believe a celebrated author who’s been penning books since the 1950’s could have wanted to quit for half a century, never succeeding in doing so. To quit writing, if you truly want to quit, is the easiest thing there is to do. Much easier, even, than the relative ease of the work itself.

Roth’s statements might have been part bitterness relating to his own departure from literature, part insider’s grave realism. But whatever sentiments imbued Roth’s words, those of us still held hostage by writing can’t fully comprehend his motivations for leaving.

Even if we find writing torture, or useless to alleviate the greater sufferings of sentient life, we can’t quit. To tell us to do so is meaningless.

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