Writing amid our looming apocalypse

Writer/publisher Michael J Seidlinger is having a fascinating conversation on Facebook about the last book we’ll read before the end of the world. It’s a worthy conversation, throwing into bright light the things we value most about the books we read.

I don’t have an easy answer, really. If the world ended tomorrow, I’d probably finish my earthly existence standing in my home library, staring at my bookshelves, still trying to decide.

But I remember Tom Franklin‘s comment about why he wrote his second novel, Smonk: “It was the book I most wanted to read, so I had to write it.” So I’m thinking instead about the books I need to write before the world ends.

Or more to the point, WHY I still need to write them. Like, if the world really is going to end — whether it’s “the world as we know it” or a more literal destruction of the planet — who would want (or be left) to read the books I’m writing?

But I’m still writing them.

Yet if I’m not trying to speak to future generations, what use is all this effort? I can’t even claim that I’m writing for myself, because if the world does end, I won’t be around to enjoy my own work either.

That means the value of telling these stories is more immediate: the value is now, in the telling.

There’s a long-running academic-workshop axiom that writing isn’t — and shouldn’t be — therapeutic. The value of your art, so the thinking goes, does not lie in the effect it evokes in you but in the effect it evokes in others, in what the work contributes to the world. And I do think that consideration is worthwhile. I think it’s profoundly useful to consider what value our art might hold for others; else, why publish the work?

But diarists and therapists alike will tell you that the act of writing — especially the act of writing honestly, a full and frank expression of our own experiences and deepest thoughts — can hold tremendous value for our own mental and emotional well-being. It’s almost a meditative act, examining our reflection on the page, looking for insight.

And I think that because the best literature holds a mirror to the human experience and seeks insight into our most intimate experiences, this therapeutic effect would result just as readily from fiction or poetry or memoir as it does from journaling.

So I’ve been thinking about this question today. And I realize that my reason for writing these books in the first place — after Tom Franklin, they are the books I most want to read right now — is the same reason I will still want to write them even if the world goes up in flames.

Which reminds me now of one of my favorite Jorge Luis Borges stories, “The Secret Miracle.”

[SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t read this story.]

Borges’s story describes a struggling Jewish playwright in the 1940s who is arrested by Nazis and sentenced to die by firing squad. As he sits in his cell, awaiting his execution, he obsesses over his impending death for a while before his thoughts shift to his current, unfinished play, which he suddenly feels desperate to complete. None of his other plays have brought him success, and now that he is facing death, he wants to finish this play, and finish it properly, so he will have left some kind of literary legacy in the world. But his execution is only days away, and on the morning of his execution, he prays that God will allow him more time to finish his work. Then the guard gives the order to open fire.

Then time stops.

He had asked God for an entire year in which to finish his work; His omnipotence had granted him the time. For his sake, God projected a secret miracle: German lead would kill him, at the determined hour, but in his mind a year would elapse between the command to fire and its execution. From perplexity he passed to stupor, from stupor to resignation, from resignation to sudden gratitude.

He disposed of no document but his own memory; the mastering of each hexameter as he added it, had imposed upon him a kind of fortunate discipline not imagined by those amateurs who forget their vague, ephemeral, paragraphs. He did not work for posterity, nor even for God, of whose literary preferences he possessed scant knowledge. Meticulous, unmoving, secretive, he wove his lofty invisible labyrinth in time.

And so the playwright works, frozen in time, entirely in his own mind. This play he had wanted to finish as his legacy will never be published, will not be his legacy. No one will ever know it even existed, because the moment he finishes his play, the Nazi riflefire will finish him. But he writes it anyway, standing trapped in time for a full year, working solely in his head, and for that opportunity — not to secure his reputation but simply to tell the story he most wanted to tell, even if only to himself — he feels sudden gratitude.

So should we all work, right up to the end.

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