She looked up at me from her dinner with an expression like that of someone who’d just been waked from a long, profound sleep.
“What is—happy?” she asked, in genuine confusion.
Instantly I apologized, knowing I’d stepped in it.
You don’t talk to writers about Happy. You don’t assume anything in connection with writers (or maybe artists in any medium) about a simple term for an ideal that nobody knows how to describe, let alone inhabit.
But privately, of course, we pursue it—one way or another, whatever we conceive it to be. Even if we’re masochists (which it’s certainly arguable that most writers may be), we pursue the painful art-making because that’s what makes us happy. Right?
Well, um, pretty much. Yeah.
Because unless you have “a burning desire to do it” as opposed to merely “a wish to do it,” as the venerated author Paul Auster advises young people (in a recent, brief video for the online Poets & Writers), “Don’t be a writer.”
“It’s a terrible life,” he continues calmly. “There’s nothing in it but povery, obscurity, and solitude. But if you have a taste for those things . . . .”
Meantime, what makes me happy? Here’s the list. Exercise. Sleep. Eating and drinking. Music. Reading and always, always, writing. Riding a bicycle. Laughter, by whatever means I can induce laughter, with beloveds.
That’s about it. Not necessarily in the above order.
In fairness, I should preface with a few precious First World basics: living without pain, with enough to eat, in relative safety. Sleeping warm and dry.
I’m thinking of pasting the above list in some location where I can see it many times per day, whether I think I want to see it or not. Because too often I lose track of its essence: the startling given of miraculous life. We’re all so cavalier, so sophisticated, so sure of its infinite supply—until it starts to sputter. Then the bargaining begins, and the terror and the grief—what you might term the Death of Ivan Ilych stuff—unless (I’m guessing) we’ve strived all our years to keep ourselves as electrifyingly awake and aware of the miracle, as we may be capable of doing.
Writing and reading help. Thank the stars.
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.