Beneath the surface — why some of us write

by Radio Somewhere

Around ninety percent of an iceberg’s volume is beneath the water surface.

I think that describes the human condition too. What we see at the surface: the material world and how we interact with it — being born, growing up, going to school, going to work, having children, buying homes and other stuff, running businesses, getting sick, growing old, and dying — is only ten percent of what is actually going on. The other ninety percent is beneath the water surface, where truths reveal themselves less readily — in fact, we often have to search really hard. This is why most of us read, and why many of us attempt to write.

The ten percent above the surface is more easily made sense of. While not necessarily deterministic, cause and effect explains sufficient variation for useful predictions to be made, even if only in hindsight. We can often see why a marriage was destined to be unhappy; why a troubled child grew up to lead a life of crime; why a business was doomed to fail; why someone died prematurely from drug/alcohol abuse — and conversely, why life’s outcomes were happy and successful.

The ninety percent beneath the surface is less about when, what, and where — and more about how, and perhaps why. It’s much more random and highly unpredictable. But it’s where the good stuff is found; and by good, I do not mean the simple opposite of bad — I mean the stuff that makes life rich, even when it sucks.

Writing at its best delves beneath the surface and finds the remarkable in the everyday and mundane. Eudora Welty and Alice Munro are brilliant practitioners at bringing great depth to ordinary people. In Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson raises a whole community above the water level. Read enough, and you cannot help but wonder about the ninety percent that lurks beneath the surface of your own immediate world — and if you feel the need to write, it’s probably what’s behind the compulsion.

My boss often talks with great admiration of his father-in-law — a larger-than-life character who lied about his age to join the Marines and then went on to be a successful business man in civilian life. So much in awe is he, that when I ask my boss a question about himself, he invariably ends up telling a story about his father-in-law, as though that is surely more interesting. But, as a wannabe writer, I find my boss a more fascinating study, especially on those rare occasions when we go beneath the water surface. For example: in one of his first jobs out of college, writing computer programs in Cobol way back when, he was called into work at 11pm to fix a problem with some code he had written. It was a minor syntax error. A very minor syntax error. A period at the end of a line of code. A period. When he found it, he stared at it in stunned disbelief — couldn’t imagine how he had managed to do it — and it’s possible that he didn’t…..and I wonder if that thought has ever crossed his mind.

About a year ago, I watched a documentary about 9/11. I don’t need to describe it — a mix of horror and heroism. But towards the end of the film, there is a character who is memorable to me, not for his heroism — for he wasn’t a hero; or for being one of the key eyewitness — because I don’t think he had any idea what had happened. He was clearly stunned and absolutely covered with dust, but you could make out that he was a middle-aged businessman who had come to work with the expectation of just an ordinary day — not a day that would change the world forever. His jacket was tied around his waist by the sleeves, and he had a laptop bag and what looked like a gym bag worn across his body (had probably intended to work out). By now, the area around the World Trade Center had been largely cleared, so the firefighter or police officer guarding the area seemed a bit surprised to see him. The conversation was only brief and went something like the following:

Man: where’s everyone gone?

Firefighter/police officer: I’m not sure, but I think everyone’s headed north.

And the man just wandered off by himself. I wonder if he lost any friends, family, or coworkers that day. I wonder if he feels guilty about not having done anything heroic (although he might have.) I wonder what thoughts go through his mind when he looks back on that day. But I suspect that he discovered part of the iceberg beneath the water surface — and perhaps he is even writing about it.

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