“So, I hear you’re a writer?” The man in the blue shirt looks rather smug, arch too. “Let me tell you about something that happened to me. I bet you could make a great story out of it.”
And then, with or without your acquiescence, he proceeds to roll out an incident or a lifetime schema that is nothing less than… dull.
Or the woman sitting next to you at the table rattles on about her daughter, her daughter’s wedding, her daughter’s friends, her daughter’s children. “You could write a whole book about my daughter,” she concludes proudly.
Yes, you know what I mean. It’s happened hundreds of times to all of us. My most persistent self-appointed muse, was Maria. For six months of every year, Maria and I walked together. We’d meet at five in the evening, set out along the trails and ancient green roads linking fields and orchards with tiny Bavarian villages. The countryside was exquisite: rolling hills, deep forests. Summer smelt like hot, ripe wheat; autumn had the tang of apples; and the hot-breathed cows puffed, watched indolently as we passed. When we reached a bar or inn, we’d stop for a drink, then turn back, homeward, just as evening mists were folding over the meadows.
Bavaria was a beautiful, exquisite country, but what did Maria see? She was an inveterate talker, a woman who lived in the past. She and her (rather unpleasant) husband had recently come from Cologne, and she knew no one down in Bavaria. She’d left her friends behind, a whole social whirl, and now, lonely, unhappy, she could only conjure up memories of a cheerier life, good laughs and vanished lovers.
I was on the receiving end of Maria’s logorrhea; what did I get out of it? Quite a bit. I’d also just arrived in the area, was learning German. At first, I understood little — if any — of Maria’s verbal waterfall. But eventually, after many months, her words coalesced into a language I too was able to use. And, amusingly, I began to feel as though I knew Maria’s old friends, those solid, middle-class women who painted, had jewelry and clothing shops, had fallen in love with other men or been divorced by unfaithful husbands. And I could picture, perfectly clearly, the local, rather elegant tavern where all met and laughed away bright nights.
“You have to write about this,” Maria said over and over. “You have to write about my life.”
I did? Why? It didn’t sound like a particularly interesting life. There was nothing terribly original, nothing noble; there were no great plots, and no glory. Why write about it?
Why do writers write what they do? I’d love to ask you all because the answers would be fascinating. Do you write, like Georges Simenon, to show how characters and an atmosphere create a crime? Or, like (I suspect) writers of romantic suspense who use strong heroes and feisty heroines as a fantasy panacea to their own fear of difficult times. Are writers of time travel books searching for a confirmation of eternity and higher powers? Certainly many write to create an alternative self, a strong one; and a life so different from their own, one far more desirable.
What about you? Do you write to ease your soul? To catch a time? Do you write to spread knowledge? Do you know why you are writing? For joy? For pleasure? For therapy? For money only? And here’s the big question: do we have to know why we’re writing? I think so. To progress, to make the writer’s road easier and fight writer’s block, fuzzy ideas, pages of senseless pulp or dull tales, we have to know why we’re writing and for whom.
Twenty years have passed since my last walk with Maria. I no longer live in Bavaria, but either does she. In her eighties, she returned to the area around Cologne, to her friends. What happened to them all? How did their stories pan out? Maria and I have lost contact so I’ll probably never know. But these days I’m doing what she asked: I’m writing her story. Why? To catch a moment in time, paint the portrait of a society, mark down the tales she entrusted me with.