Paul Mitchell considers the question of vocation when it comes to writing and its worth.
A true story: one of Australia’s leading writers is watching a documentary. A surgeon performs a live-saving operation on a child. The leading Australian writer exclaims, “My God, why I can’t I do something useful?”
Most writers ask themselves questions regularly: Why can’t I get published? When will I get another book out? Why can’t I make a living? Why does no one appreciate my genius? (Never asked aloud.) Why don’t people read what I write? Why do big publishers only publish crap? How will digital media stuff my bank balance? But asking the question of whether he or she is doing something useful, whether writing is a selfish endeavor, is a question that marks a writer’s maturity.
The American short story writer and poet Raymond Carver said writing was his vocation. And he meant the religious implication, the sense of selflessness required to carry out a vocation. But whether we are religious or not, the idea of vocation conjures the idea of a practice emanating from the deepest place in ourselves. A useful and unselfish practice.
Does everyone who writes have a vocation? If we’re talking about Carver’s sense of the word, then no. Does everyone who is ‘successful’ have a vocation? Does everyone who has a vocation experience it as one? I think the answer to both questions is no. But perhaps being a writer with at least a sense of vocation is its own success.
I have a sense of vocation, but I still get body slammed by thoughts like, You’re not Tim Winton (or insert any one of hundreds of names), why do you think you should be writing? But my sense of vocation gives me confidence to stand against that dark talk, and help me believe my writing is useful. That it’s not just about me. Because if someone as successful, widely read and, in my opinion, useful as the writer I mentioned in the first paragraph could berate herself about her usefulness, it shows the question of vocation can’t be answered by external measures.
A picture’s worth a thousand words. No poetry after Auschwitz. Actions speak louder than words. You won’t find these aphorisms stuck to the walls above writers’ desks. And yet they’re stuck on the walls of our minds, always there to remind us that, hey, when you get down to it, your writing’s useless. Take up photography, sociology, social work or, because actions speak louder, maybe mime. These aphorisms dismiss writing altogether, but if they’re any help at all it is in assisting writers to question their usefulness. Quicker, perhaps, than a medical documentary.
In the 19 years I’ve viewed writing as my vocation, I’ve published four books, and written and published hundreds of individual poems, stories, essays, memoir pieces, reviews and articles. But I wrestle seriously over the question of usefulness at least once a quarter. That’s down a lot, however, from once a day.
When I was most concerned about the question of usefulness and selfishness, I read some terrific books about writing: George Orwell’s Why I Write, Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and Brian Doyle’s Leaping, Revelations and Epiphanies. They all have stories about their wrestles with whether or not writing is valuable, and advice for those wrestling with the same question. Their stories lit me up, inspired me, kept me on the path – but none of them rested in my heart. Because you can only know what you’re doing is useful when you experience its value.
I’ve been lucky enough to feel that value many times. People have told me that my writing has changed them for the better. These stories keep me motivated, show me that others value what I do, and allow me to experience that value.
The people who wrote that they were moved to better understand their teenage daughters when they read my Sunday Age ‘Faith’ column about my love for my daughter.
The Aboriginal woman who emailed me from central Australia saying my review of an Archie Roach album had made her feel proud to be Aboriginal.
The woman I met at a party who’d had pinned to her wall for years a poem I’d published in The Australian.
A friend of Jeff Buckley’s who emailed me from the States and said my article about him had delved into the truth of the musician’s life and art, and had helped her to grieve.
A man who heard me read on the ABC an essay I wrote about post-divorce fathering that made him burst into tears while he was driving – and realise his life was still worth living.
I could go on. But it sounds like bragging. It’s not meant to. They are just my reminders that I can be useful. And that writing isn’t just about me. Yes, I’d like to be better able to make a living from it. Yes, I’d like more critical acclaim. But if I’m honest, I want those things so that I can better facilitate my usefulness, my words’ vocational work of entering souls to offer hope, peacekeeping and reconciliation. And even, sometimes, a little life-saving surgery.
Paul Mitchell is a past Going Down Swinging contributor and features in issues No. 19–No. 23, No. 28 and No. 30. Paul’s books are Dodging the Bull (short fiction), Awake Despite the Hour and Minorphysics (both poetry).
Engraving by William Hogarth (1697-1764), The Industrious ‘Prentice a Favourite, and Entrusted by His Master. Used under Creative Commons from the University of Adelaide Library.