I was asked recently by the mother of a seventeen-year-old boy to write a letter to her son explaining why he should write. I must admit, I procrastinated for some time before I complied. I do not like writing about writing, do not like to think about the process, which has always come naturally to me. It's rather like trying to concentrate on your golf swing - you can only suffer from self-consciousness. However, since this was to be about purpose and not process, and as I had promised her I would do so, I set about it, and I reproduce the result here for anyone else who may be interested...
Why Should a Seventeen-Year-Old Write?
Every human being is a universe. We spin on the axis of our own ego; our perceptions, thoughts, desires, fears and hopes embracing a cosmos that, so far as we can tell, is eternal. We are all that we see and seem; a dream within a dream as Poe mused. Indeed, we spend our entire lives dreaming – whether asleep or awake. Our night dreams are pure introspection – the collision of a waking consciousness with a subconscious awakening. The result defies logic, experience, even our own will and better judgment. Nightmares are a sort of inner social commentary on our worst fears and darkest expectations; pleasant dreams are a gift which our subconscious offers to our waking mind. Guilt and generosity, damnation and delight – these are the fabric and function of our dreams. Shakespeare said that “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” As usual, he was right. Life is a dream – the soul’s dream of reality – and we spend our entire life dreaming.
Dreams have no hard substance. They lack height, weight, depth, taste and temperature. They exist only in time and the mind’s experience of it. Life, since it is a dream, is essentially insubstantial. The suspicion that what we call reality is, after all, merely an illusion, has been thudding around philosophy from the beginning, its “mighty footsteps echoing in the corridors of time,” as Longfellow put it. What is real, in the sense of: What can be proved to be reality? The Beatles said that nothing is real. Tolstoy believed that “only that which is spiritual is real.” And St. Exupery’s fox tells the Little Prince that only those things you cannot see are essential. I am convinced that they are all correct. And you do not have to believe in Sixties rock or the soul or spirituality to agree with them; you need only believe in dreams.
And so we reach the conclusion that each of us is a universe, and that our universe consists of dreams – either consciously thrust upon us while awake, or unconsciously synthesized by us while alseep. Our whole life passes and is passed within a dream, either conscious or unconscious. Given a certain looseness of logic, the two are perfectly interchangeable; indeed, there was a tribe of Native Americans who believed that only night dreams were real, while waking consciousness was an illusion. Again Shakespeare: “Thou hast nor age nor youth, but as it were, an after dinner sleep dreaming of both.” Like ice and water, solid and liquid, night dreams and day dreams are merely differing phases of the same truth – that life itself is a dream.
Now, what does all this have to do with seventeen-year-olds and why they should write? The answer is simple: Dreams have no substance, but words can give them substance. Words are the bones and sinews of dreams; phrases are their blood, sentences are their muscle and tissue, paragraphs their flesh and emotions, and insight, emerging from them, is their mind. Think about it: What do you do when you awaken from a particularly vivid dream? You tell someone about it. Your natural instinct is to give voice to your dreams – to express them in words. You don’t just lie in bed re-dreaming – in fact, you can’t force yourself to re-experience any dream. But you do have an immediate and instinctive need to put your dream into words, so that you, and someone else, can experience it and try to understand it, to puzzle out its symbols. In other words, you want your dream to live, to last, to have a meaning.
To experience and understand, to create something that lives and has meaning: That is what words enable us to do. Words lift us, momentarily, out of the dream state and give to it a lasting form – the height and weight and depth and taste and temperature which dreams lack. Words allow us to live our dreams – indeed, they compel us to. Words are the substance of dreams, and writing is the most enduring form of words. Writing makes dreams survive; it enables them to live and last. Writing makes our dreams meaningful to ourselves and to others. And since we are, each of us, a universe of dreams, writing releases our lives from the constraints of time – it makes our dreams eternal.
Because writing enables us to do this, it makes it possible for us to gain knowledge of, and insight into, our inner selves, the meaning of our lives. It enables us to outlast the time which is the only context of dreams. It enables us to join our personal universe with the multiverse of others – to meld our dreams with theirs. And because of this, writing enables us to live and last and love.
Without words, your private universe would be a dark, cold, sterile place. With words, it comes alive both to yourself and to others. And in written words, it takes on its most lasting, thoughtful and intimate aspect. There is nothing in this world so intimate as sitting down with a pen or at a keyboard and writing from your soul, writing your life out, writing to someone else, connecting your separate minds in a mutual galaxy of thoughts and words. There is nothing more beautiful and wonderful, and difficult and frightening than the process of putting your dreams on paper. The great Irish poet W.B. Yeats told his beloved that he longed to give her a cloth of gold, “But I, being poor, have only my dreams. I have spread my dreams under your feet. Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
When you open your private universe to others in writing, you are making the ultimate act of faith and hope and love. You are saying: Here are my dreams, for both you and me to see and understand; here is myself. This is what my private universe looks and sounds and feels and sings like. This is me – the real me. Such is the power of the written word: To turn a cold, dark universe inside-out, and open our inner selves to the light of understanding and the warmth of love.
Writing is dangerous, it is difficult, but it is essential if we are to learn and grow and become larger than ourselves. If we are to understand and express ourselves, if we are to dream in eternity and love in time and space, we must confront who we are, each in his private cosmos, and we must express the truth of our discovery to others, for all time and for all to see. That is why we write; that is why you, a seventeen-year-old must write: Because you are a universe roiling and rocketing through space-time, searching for a cloth of gold in which to wrap your dreams.