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For the Pleasure of Doing and the Search for Sublimity

Once again someone asked me why I write and why I keep The Back Road Café going. Answering the second question is easy enough so I’ll start there. As long as people want to write for the website, as long as people visit the site, and as long as I enjoy it, I’ll keep it going. We’re still getting a healthy number of people from around thirty countries visiting the site each week. The first question, however, is a little more interesting and complicated to answer.

The subtext to the question is: Why do your continue to write when your books are not read by that many people and you’re not making much money? It’s a good question. It’s highly improbable that I’ll ever become a bestselling author and thus will never make much money writing. Indeed, I spend money writing. So, let me deal with the money thing first.

I’m lousy at marketing. I’m not bragging about that, implying that I’m much too consumed by my art to soil my hands in the dirty business of marketing. Each time someone from the publisher calls me on the phone and asks how things are going, I’m embarrassed. I should be marketing, but I don’t. And indie writers are caught in a dilemma –it may be true that traditionally published authors are also experiencing this dilemma (a friend of mine who published with a traditional publisher was told she had to market her book herself). You have to spend money on your book to make money, but the more you spend the harder it is to even break even. Here’s how I look at the money I spend on publishing, editing, and marketing my books. It’s like money spent on a vacation. You’ll (probably) never get the money back, but you have the experience for ever. It should be noted, I haven’t given up the silly hope that my writing will go viral. It’s just that I don’t justify the expenditure on the assumption that it will.

So, if I’m paying for an experience, what is it? What keeps me writing? First, I enjoy it. It gives me pleasure. Most of my writing is done between 10:30 pm and 3:00 am. I sit in my study facing the window and it seems as though the world is asleep. It’s peaceful. I crack the window open, even in the winter, for some fresh air. On those nights when it is raining, of which there are many here in Seattle, I love listening to the rain. I enjoy the “hopelessly sentimental music of the rainfall” (Kurt Vonnegut from God Bless You Mr. Rosewater or Pearls Before Swine). And I find the actual act of writing – the thought, research, challenge, excitement, satisfaction – pleasurable. Of course, there is more to it than enjoyment.

It seems to me, it’s always seemed to me, that one of the most fundamental things we can do as human beings is create. Creativity is, I believe, a core defining characteristic that makes us human. It is important to understand that when I speak about the act of creating something, I am not speaking about the quality of the fruits of the creative act. The creative act itself has prima facie value. The quality of the fruits – how people judge the outcome, the product, whether it is deemed good or bad – does not diminish the value of the act itself. The fruit of my creative act does not determine the value of the act itself. Or said another way, the fact that Toni Morrison’s Paradise or Philip Roth’s American Pastoral are no doubt judged better than my The Woman in White Marble, does not also imply their acts of creativity are better than mine. In the act of creating, Morrison and I are equals. Our resultant books are not. What is happening as I sit in my study in the early hours is not better or worse than what happens when Roth sits at his desk. The acts of our creation are not to be appraised as better or worse in some kind of hierarchical ranking. The fruits of our actions can be.

 Given what I’ve just said, it will come as no surprise that I resist the notion of a hierarchy in creativity, and yet, I must admit there is a hierarchy in the resulting fruits of creativity. Those fruits when shared with others can underwhelm, offend, bore, entertain, challenge, inspire, transform. At its best, the fruits of creativity can be sublime: of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe; impressing the mind with a sense of grandeur or power; inspiring awe, veneration; to elevate or exalt especially in dignity or honor; to render finer, as in purity or excellence; to convert into something of higher worth. Which all goes to say that the fruits of human creativity, at their best, can make us new. A creative fruit that bores us will be less valued than a creative fruit that transforms us.

Let’s be honest. If I were to take up composing, nothing I could create would ever match the sublimity of Mozart. Not only would Mozart’s music be judged better than mine, it would be better than mine! In a hierarchy of the quality of music, my music would be inferior and would be sitting towards the bottom of the pile.

You may be saying to yourself that it is pretty convenient that I separate the act of creativity, where the act has equal value, from the fruits of creativity, where the fruits are better or worse, given that I am no Roth or Morrison. Perhaps. But I’m fairly sure that if I ever wrote a book that was deemed excellent, indeed sublime, I would still insist on the distinction between acts and fruits. The greater challenge to what I have just said is the accusation of elitism. It is easy for me to be creative and value creativity, and to actually claim it is fundamental to what it means to be human, sitting in my comfortable, warm, dry study in Seattle with plenty of food in my belly. The charge of elitism needs to be addressed, but it is for another day. However, I can say that I have seen some pretty amazing creativity in a township in Zimbabwe and in a tiny village in northern India. But, as I said, for another day.

For now, if you ask me why I write even though I will never be rich and famous, the answer is: For the pleasure of it all and because it makes me a better human being.

Copyright © 2016 Dale Rominger

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