Why write? In her legendary December 1976 essay “Why I Write,” the late great Joan Didion confessed, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Writer, teacher and all around wonderful human being Brenda Ueland gave an even more poetic answer: “Because there’s nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money. Because the best way to know the Truth or Beauty is to try to express it. And what is the purpose of existence Here or Yonder but to discover truth and beauty and express it; i.e. share it with others?”
Few writers have pondered this perennial question more profoundly than poet, novelist, and dedicated diarist May Sarton. In her timeless Journal of Solitude, Sarton records and reflects on her life during a single year at her quiet home in the idyllic woods of New Hampshire. Written with a poet’s ear for rhythm and a philosopher’s insight, Journal of Solitude explores such themes as depression, despair, solitude, writing and the writing life.
According to Sarton, many aspiring writers write for the wrong reasons. Rather than focus on perfecting their craft, they worry about getting published. They hunger for fame, fortune, success. Their eyes glitter with grandiose visions of holding their New York Times best-selling book in their hands. As Sarton writes in a September 17, 1972 entry, too many writers are obsessed with “making it” and buy into the myth of the overnight success:
“But it is troubling how many people expect applause, recognition, when they have not even begun to learn an art or craft. Instant success is the order of the day; ‘I want it now!’ I wonder whether this is not part of our corruption by machines. Machines do things very quickly and outside the natural rhythm of life, and we are indignant if a car doesn’t start at the first try.”
Human beings are impatient when we want something. Rather than plant a seed and watch it grow, we dig it up every ten seconds. “Why hasn’t my flower blossomed yet?” we whine exasperatedly. But a plant can only grow if we pot it in rich soil, water it every so often, tend the weeds, and wait patiently.
The same goes for writing. We can’t hurry the process, we can’t demand that we produce “x” useable pages like factory workers on an assembly line. A work is born in its own time. Our lives unfold in divine time— not according to the ego’s rigid, unrealistic deadlines. Sometimes it will take ten years to realize our artistic dreams, sometimes half a century. But as Rainer Maria Rilke once told a young poet, “In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing.”
Though she knows “making it” isn’t the most important thing, Sarton still wants success. Her masterpiece of introspection unflinchingly charts the challenging terrain of the artist’s life: the peaks of a perfectly-formed sentence, the valleys of rejection letters and ripped pages. Despite her undeniable talent, Sarton doubts herself, finds herself debilitated by writer’s block and gets frustrated at her dismissal by critics. Like any artist, Sarton dreams of one thing: recognition.
After receiving a scathing review in the Sunday Times, Sarton descends into a pit of depression. Indignant and dejected, she confesses to her diary:
“The darkness again. An annihilating review in the Sunday Times. I must have had a premonition, as I felt terribly low in my mind all weekend. Now it is the old struggle to survive, the feeling that I have created twenty-four ‘children’ and every one has been strangled by lack of serious critical attention. This review is simply stupid.”
Despite her disappointment, Sarton finds comfort in remembering why she writes. It’s not for acclaim or applause, it’s not to earn the admiration of millions or the rubber stamp of approval from the New York Times. Though she reveres solitude as a vital seedbed for her creativity, Sarton ultimately creates to cross the vast seas of seclusion and connect with other souls. By expressing her small, singular life, Ms. Sarton hopes to capture something universal— in other words, help her readers feel less alone.
In a revelatory moment of self-awareness, Sarton realizes she’s become too preoccupied with worldly notions of success:
“I have become convinced since that horrible review (unimportant in itself) that it is a message, however deviously presented, to tell me that I have been over-concerned with the materialistic aspects of bringing out this novel, the dangerous hope that it become a bestseller, or that, for once, I might get a leg up from the critics, the establishment, and not have once more to see the work itself stand alone and make its way, heart by heart, as it is diverted by a few people with all the excitement of a person who finds a wildflower in the woods that he has discovered on his own. From my isolation to the isolation of someone somewhere who will find my work there exists a true communion. I have not lacked it in these last years, and it is a blessing. It is free of ‘ambition’ and it ‘makes the world go away,’ as the popular song says. This is what I can hope for and I must hope for nothing more or less.”