During the last holiday season I somehow forgot to pick up copies of the latest The BEST AMERICAN Series (2004), and had, in the process, deprived myself of what has become an annual pilgrimage through the pages of the year's best American essays, spiritual writing, science and nature writing, travel writing, and stories, both short and mystery. I enjoy the brief encounters with writers of high caliber and wide-ranging thought. Often I find new (to me) writers or writers I had by-passed for a variety of reasons. Many times I gain new respect for a known writer.
Sometimes the pieces are autobiographical and an open window into the writer's life or writing process is offered. That's how it was the other morning--although I didn't know it--when I read Laura Hillenbrand's A Sudden Illness in the The Best American Essay Series for 2004. The piece originally appeared in The New Yorker. Mind you, I didn't make the connection between the writer and her best-selling book until the revelation at the end.
"What began as an article for American Heritage became an obsession, and in the next two years the obsession became a book. Borden and I moved to a cheap rental house farther downtown, and I arranged my life around the project. At the local library, I pored over documents and microfilm I requisitioned from the Library of Congress. If I looked down at my work, the room spun, and Border jerry-rigged a device that held the documents vertically. When I was too dizzy to read, I lay down and wrote with my eyes closed. When I was too dizzy to read, I lay down and write with my eyes closed. Living in my subjects' bodies, I forgot about my own."
Hillenbrand details the terrible and sudden onslaught of a disease that captured her in its net in 1987 and still exerts tremendous power over her more than fifteen years later. With more downs than ups, it's absolutely amazing to me that she continued to write despite the devastation that sought to consume her every moment. That she could produce a work that so captured the imagination of millions and led to a major movie nearly defies belief.
But that's how it is for many writers who struggle to produce book after book despite hands that are locked into tight balls constrained by rheumatoid arthritis or bodies that suffer attack after attack of MS or some other debilitating disease. You have to wonder: What is it that makes them persevere? Why do they continue to struggle day after day, often with meager results that would deflate the best of us and cause most of us to walk away?
Passion. Some call it a compulsion, others say it's an obsession, but whatever it is, there is something deep inside that tries mightily to get out, to be released into the world at large. Despite the clamor of the real world, the obligations and duties, the frustrations, the struggles, the strikes that imperil the soul and the body, these writers continue on. While I confess that my trials and travails barely rise to the bar set by so many other prodigious and productive, yet afflicted, writers, I do know that I am driven to write in order to communicate: I have something to say. It's beyond reflection. It's infused with discovery. The urge to tell is powerful.
But there is another, perhaps more powerful urge, that infuses my writing. I love to create. The first burst of an idea that lights up my interior landscape sparks such a strong desire to communicate and urges me to find the right form to translate the idea from my mind onto paper. The ability to write and sort it all out, to make sense of the explosion, is what draws me back to the process time and time again.
If you haven't figured out who Laura Hillenbrand is, let me jog your memory. Her book won the Book Sense Book of the Year Award and the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Okay, think: racehorse. Yes, she is the author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend, and her essay, Sudden Illness, won the National Magazine Award. (Click here to read the full article.)
Do you have a passion to write? Maybe it's not the writing but the subject that brings a twinkle to your eye and an obligation to your spirit. Ask yourself whether you're writing something that interests you, something that has enough power to bring you back, time and again, to the keyboard. If you do, then the next time you don't feel like writing, remember Laura Hillenbrand. Then turn on the computer and click your way back into that stream of passion that thrums at the center of your writing life.