My nephew turned twenty-one last night, so I did the avuncular thing and took him out for his first legal beer. The talk turned, over beers, as talk will turn over beers, to “the meaning of life and the isness of it all.” He asked me why I write, and, in true Socratic fashion I tossed the question back to him. “Why do you think I write?” I asked, and he told me the two reasons that immediately sprang to mind: money and ego.
We parsed these possibilities, and soon dismissed them as dead ends. If I were in it for the money, we reasoned, there were many other careers I could choose that would draw a more reliable and ready earn. The writer’s path, on the face of it, is just a lousy longshot choice if all you want is walking green.
Ego, then? Ego? The soul-satisfying sense of everyone looking at me in admiration and deep awe? That’s a great goal if you’re [insert famous writer’s name here.] However, if you’re a low- to mid-list author like me, the search for ego gratification through writing is, like the search for fat paychecks, kind of a dry well. More often than not, it’s going to go the other way. The world will largely ignore, or resoundingly reject, my written words, and then the only thing my ego gets is the grey, dismaying sense of, “Ouch, my feelings.” No fun. And no path that a sensible person might choose.
At this point, I think, my nephew began to become dismayed – sad for his “silly Uncle John,” who has never successfully masqueraded as a sensible person but could at least be counted on to make choices in his own self-interest. If the money wasn’t there, and the ego strokes weren’t there, what could possibly be worth banging my head against the page for day after week after month after year? Was my career, in the end, not the very definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results?
That’s when I hit him with the third thing – the one thing that’s kept me coming back to words on the page from the very start to these very words here. What’s the third thing? In a word: legacy. I write not for money or for ego, but to build, and build upon, my legacy as a person having a meaningful life experience and, through communication of my discoveries, contributing to the meaningful life experience of others.
By this point, we’re well into our second or third pints, and the world is getting kind of swirly. He asks me, rightly, what makes me think that my writing will lead to legacy any more surely that it will lead to money or fame. The answer I give him is, it already has. Thanks to my twenty-year-old book (and now modest modern classic) The Comic Toolbox, and thanks to the test of time that it’s already stood, I can be at least reasonably certain that someone, somewhere will be exposed to my thoughts and words long after I’m dead, buried and gone.
“That’s my bandwidth,” I explained, “my carrier wave. That book, if no others, will beam All Thoughts Vorhausian (or at least Some Thoughts Vorhausian) into the dim and distant future.” With my carrier wave thus established, I can now focus on how to modulate that frequency. Sometimes I have modulated with self-indulgence (Banana Pants Crazy), sometimes with weirdness (A Million Random Words) and sometimes with grandiloquent pretension (How To Live Life). In all cases, I have made my writing choices secure in the knowledge that, thanks to the venerable Toolbox, folks will continue to give my work a look-see.
But that’s just the practical fact of legacy – it tells us that legacy exists. It doesn’t tell us what legacy is, nor why we should care to advance it. To explain this part of the equation to my (now heavy-lidded) nephew, I had to turn to religion – the simple and plain, hand-hewn religion that I follow, which, in a nutshell, “seeks a rational grounding for faith.” According to my understanding of this stuff, I am a steward of my DNA, a custodian of my gift of life. Whether that gift comes from God or from my sneaky, selfish genes is not a question I need to concern myself with. I have received the gift; the question is, what shall I do with it? What sort of steward shall I be?
And here’s where the idea of legacy comes full circle. To be a good and worthy steward of my DNA, I reckon, all I have to do is use my human powers to uplift the human condition. If I do that according to my vision and to the best of my ability, then questions both of ego and money fall away. When I write, I am building my legacy (ephemeral and uncertain though it may be). By building my legacy as vigorously and consciously as I might, I’m manifesting good stewardship. By manifesting good stewardship, I’m serving my DNA. And I am content.
I am content. My words reach hundreds, not thousands or millions. My paychecks have three figures, not four, five or six. But all the words I write – if I choose them with awareness and care – add to my understanding of what life is all about, and add my understanding to the sum of everyone’s. Thanks to The Comic Toolbox, I have my carrier wave, my means of sending my thoughts into tomorrow. Thanks to my notion of good stewardship, I choose thoughts worth sending. I do this for no better reason, and seeking no greater satisfaction, than the creation and evolution of my legacy as I understand it.
Did we close the bar last night? No. My nephew is yet young; he’ll have plenty of time to learn how to close a bar on his own. But we did have a frank and meaningful exchange of views, and guess what? I was advancing my legacy there, too, for I helped this impressionable lad see that there’s more to a career choice than money or ego. There’s legacy. It’s a fuzzy, ephemeral thing, but it’s a light in the darkness for me. Money is a dead end. Ego is a trap. But legacy is worth writing for and striving for. It’s the reason – and reason enough – why I write.
How about you? When impressionable young relatives ask you why you write, what answer do you give? Does it satisfy them? Does it satisfy you?
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