John Gardner writes that we read for “the pleasure of exercising our capacity to love.” Having been an English major, I find this idea slightly challenging. Don’t we also read to see the world from others’ eyes or to learn about history or as a social critique or to have our beliefs turned on their heads? Don’t we read to be entertained? To escape?
But when I think back to my first and best experiences of reading (in grade school, when I spent summers on the back porch with my nose in some Newbery Award winning novel and my whole being transported to worlds more contained and extravagant than my own), they were saturated with love. And if I’m honest, all my lofty academic reasons for pursuing an English major were cover-up for a plain old love of reading.
What Gardner is saying is slightly different, though: We read for the pleasure of exercising our capacity to love. We love loving, and reading lets us practice this—reading helps us get better at this. Whoa! There’s plenty of scientific studies that prove reading fiction makes us more empathetic—that it exercises our relational capacities just as effectively as real life. It logically follows that reading makes us better able to love. Is it possible that beneath all our conscious explanations for reading lies this love affair between our hearts and love itself?
All this makes me wonder whether we write for the same reason. As a writing coach I constant meet people who want to write but don’t know how to get started, or who keep a journal but are paralyzed by the idea of writing for an audience, or who have lost their sense of direction deep in the drafting of a book. Is it possible that the pleasure of exercising love is our path out of these dark woods?
David Foster Wallace thinks so:
It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved.
The work of releasing our ego’s needs in favor of the fine gift of loving, according to Wallace, is fundamental to the creation of art. The implications are marvelous. The not-yet writer with an itch to create can learn to love the sounding board of the receptive blank page. The private journal-writer can learn to love rather than fear her reader. The author adrift in the middle of a larger project can set aside his or her agenda for the sake of loving—and serving—the subject itself.
Perhaps we writers love to write because we love loving, and we intuit that writing exercises this capacity. If so, can anything be more worthy?
The Saturday launch of Writing the Sacred Journey: The Art & Practice of Spiritual Memoir at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality was a great success, thanks to a marvelous group of writers. Even if you didn’t make it, you’re still welcome to dig into the monthly drop-in classes on October 16, November 20, December 18, 1:30-3:30 p.m.
Want to learn why I’m crazy about revision? Join me the morning of October 31 for a Revision Revolution workshop at The Loft Literary Center.
Oh, Baby! True Stories About Conception, Adoption, Surrogacy, Pregnancy, Labor, and Love hits the bookshelves on October 5th. In it you’ll find my essay about my daughter’s birth and her generous, strong birth parents. Check out this great review in Publisher’s Weekly.