Writing, Sanity, Meaning, & Death

I found out I was a writer when I was 13 years old. It all started in summer camp when the other junior high boys in my cabin would read the love letters they had written to camp crushes to me, and I would make suggestions like “Instead of saying [blank] why don’t you try telling her [blank]?” Eventually my friends (and even a few highschoolers in the next cabin) decided that I was so good at “saying stuff”, that instead of writing their own letters they would just have me write them. I may or may not have obliged in exchange for a dollar or two, but nevertheless I would venture to say that half of the junior high relationships that summer of 2004 came about as a result of my pen.

At some point one girl began to brag about the sweet letter she received from her new boyfriend and another girl piped up and then another, until they all compared letters and the jig was up. To my surprise this didn’t earn me their ire but, in fact, their praise. “That was the sweetest letter I got from ‘Doug’! You're a great writer!”, “I knew that handwriting was too good to have come from Tom!” That was the moment I discovered the thing I was good at. Some kids are good at sports. Some kids play an instrument. But as for me, I determined I would be a writer for the rest of my days. And I've been writing ever since.

It’s been twelve years since that summer. From then until now I have had the privilege of being featured in several major online publications and a few smaller print ones. My writing has landed me radio interviews, new friends, great jobs, and— perhaps most importantly— the occasional hot dinner date. I still chase the elusive book deal, but I am confident that in the next twelve years that milestone will also have been reached.

This article is basically what I’ve learned about writing so far. Not the nuts-and-bolts of writing necessarily— you can get that at workshops and at conferences— but rather what I’ve learned about the nature of writing. What the act of writing is, and why people like me do it. I have come to find that the writing process, and the mentality of writers in general, is closely intertwined with the subjects of sanity, meaning, and death. I hope you enjoy this article as I attempt to illustrate how.


The absurd paradox of writing is this: We write because we fear death, but spend all of the days that we live writing. Of course this is a “paradox” only to those who do not write, for writers have a definition of life and death that is different than how others normally understand both of those things. You see, it’s not that writers are afraid of ceasing to exist because they fear the inevitable loss of their consciousness, but rather they fear ceasing to exist in the consciousness of others. Writers know that the corpses of Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens, Upton Sinclair, and the neck-down of Ernest Hemingway long ago decomposed and that they are now nothing but calcium phosphate in a wooden box. And yet, all of them are still very much alive, perhaps even more so now than during the time they were actually alive.

How can this be?

In much the same way as a romantic partner. Before you met your romantic partner their existence meant nothing to you. You could care less about the way in which they lived their life, the things they did, or what happened to them, because you were completely unaware they even shared the same planet as you. But once they entered your consciousness, then they came alive and were of infinite importance to you. They were breathing long before you ever met them, and you were breathing long before they ever met you, but both of you felt the filling of a void you never knew was there when you both entered into each other’s minds. To both of you, one came alive to the other in that moment. But let’s imagine your romantic partner then died a month after you met them. Their voice still echoes in your mind. You are reminded of their personality every time a certain song is played, or a scene in a movie comes up. The way they smelled takes you suddenly as you walk into a perfume store or a shoe store or a clothing store. “But they're still dead.” Yes they are, but they could have died before you met them... so what’s different? Memories. They’re not dead to you. For you they will now always exist, unlike before, when they had not entered your consciousness. In a way, they were more dead during the time when they were alive and you did not know them, than when they passed on but still carried on in your memory. 

And that’s what writers aim for. 

We are not terrified of death itself, but of being dead to people. Granted everybody is terrified of this, but we writers take our fear further: As writers, we write so that our lives do not only continue as long as those we know remember us, but we write in the hopes that our writings will cause our personalities and inner thoughts to be introduced into the consciousness of countless people over many centuries who never knew us, so as to achieve perpetual life even while we rot.

Charles Dickens is not dead. Alexander Dumas is not dead. Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allen Poe, Jane Austen, they’re not dead. They are, but they never will be. And that’s what every writer wants to accomplish.         


Make no mistake: There is no difference between a man in a psych ward who talks to himself and enjoys the company, and a writer who writes knowing that he or she has no readership and gladly spends hours writing what they’re writing anyway. In fact, writers who write with a readership are still just as insane, because when they began they did so without one and persisted. We’re all mad as hatters, we really are. Normal people don’t write. At least not well. 

Furthermore, think about what kind of mind it takes to write. You have to constantly be living in a fantasy world. While you’re at work, while you’re at home, while you’re eating, while you’re laying in bed, your mind is constantly wandering “realities” that are not real at all (or were real a long time ago but which you did not witness). You must do this in order to create. And then people wonder why writers are so eccentric/sex-crazed/mentally ill/“mood swingy”/anti-sobriety/social outcasts. It’s because we live primarily in our own heads. A very thin line exists between the reality our brain has to translate and the “realities” we conjure for our own amusement. And you can’t do that for any large stretch of time and not become prone to behaviors wider society considers “odd”.

There is an even further reason now, I believe, more than any other time in history, for writers to “live inside their own heads” in this manner; and that is, that the modern world increasingly doesn’t have room for us. Oh they like us, sure, they love us. But they don’t have any use for us. This is a world that values technical skills. This is a world that values people who know machines. A world where the words “self-reliant”, “independent”, “passion”, and “creativity”, are only used to encourage entrepreneurship not writing. If you’re a writer in the 21st century, the world might love to read you, but it is also perfectly content with letting you starve as they do it. Aestheticism is dead. If it doesn’t have a use, it’s a “luxury” not a need. Perhaps this is the one failure of rationalism— allowing the impression that human beings require no deeper nourishment than nutrients for our bodies and logic for our heads. Souls and spirits do not exist, but surely we could use a word like “soul” or “spirit” to be a temporary label for the unknown place within us that very obviously needs art and beauty in order to live. 


We might be mad as hatters, but I would actually consider you insane for not writing. Ask yourself this: when you die, what will the people you love have left of you? Objects do not contain your “essence”, any money you leave will get spent, most of the words you only speak will eventually be forgotten, and photographs present only an image of you. None of these things quite do the trick of bringing you back to life for your loved ones once you are gone. But written words... they keep you alive a long time after you’ve passed. Words can be read and reread, they can last for centuries, and— depending on what the words say— they can make a lasting impression on the people you’ve written them to. 

Writers write books and articles about a lot of different topics. We love the idea of our children, grandchildren, and our grandchildren’s children going back and reading our stuff and getting a sense of who we were. But here’s the thing: you don’t have to be a “writer” in order to be remembered by those you love and those who come after them. Just write something. That’s why I find it so crazy when the occasional person asks me “Why do you write?” Are you kidding? Life and death, by themselves, are intrinsically meaningless. It’s up to us to make our lives and deaths meaningful, and I challenge you to find a better way of doing that than leaving words behind.  

If only my great grandfather could know how many times me— and the rest of my family— have read his love letters that he wrote during World War II to my great grandmother while fighting the Nazis in Italy. Thank goodness my great grandmother kept them. My great grandfather died when my father was in the 9th grade. Those letters are all I have to know him by, and are the only items my father and my grandparents have to remember him with. Because of those letters, I can just picture him near Venice in a bombed-out brick building, concealing himself behind whatever wall is left, getting rained on, smoking a cigarette to keep warm while he shivers and writes a letter home. My great grandfather wasn’t a writer. In fact, he went on to become a traveling furniture salesman after the war. But you would think he was goddamn Nicholas Sparks the way those letters read. Write something to the people you love. Do it now. You could get run over in the street tomorrow. Don’t ever live your life thinking you’ll have the luxury of a deathbed. My great grandfather didn’t. He died suddenly of a heart attack in his early sixties. But my great grandmother always had his letters, and now so do we.


Like I said, this article was never meant to be about the nuts-and-bolts of writing. This was not supposed to be a piece wherein I insisted on the importance of the Oxford comma or boldly asserted that you can, in fact, start a sentence with coordinating conjunctions. Instead I merely wanted to convince you of the value of writing, both for writer and reader alike, and I hope I’ve done that. Not many people consider writing as a means to happiness in one’s own life or as a means to immortality beyond it.