Often, when I write, a feeling of futility washes over me. What is the use, I think, of sitting here day after day, sifting through adjectives and tweaking clauses and worrying about semicolons. Does the world really need yet another paragraph from me?
Wouldn\’t it be better, instead, to volunteer at the food bank or join demonstrations for worthy causes? I could be feeding dogs and cleaning cat cages at the Humane Society, or interpreting for the workers from Latin America who milk the cows of Vermont farmers. Instead, I fiddle with words while the world around me burns and/or floods and generally careens toward Armageddon.
I imagine that it\’s not just writers who agonize about this. Musicians probably worry about the relevance of spending hours to perfect a single trill, and painters accuse themselves of triviality for obsessing about different shades of ochre. And even people who don\’t work in the arts–housewives/husbands, accountants, or taxi drivers, anyone not directly involved with saving children or animals or the planet–probably ask themselves the same question.
I recently got some consolation from writer and photographer Teju Cole. In an interview in On Being he said: \”Even if I\’m writing about something very dark, to take it through eight drafts, to take it through ten drafts is an act of hope, because you\’re saying, even in this moment, a well-shaped sentence matters […] Somebody could say, \’We\’re facing the apocalypse. Who gives a shit how well it\’s written?\’ And my hope is that if it\’s written well, it might catch somebody\’s attention and be a balm for something that they\’re going through. […]And so I try to write well.\”
There you have it: be a balm. We may not know when or whether the balm is working, but we have to keep on striving, just in case. You can never tell when the passage with that elegant trill will lift a hearer out of despondency, even if only for a moment. The same goes for a well-swept room, or a smooth drive to the airport. The kids home from school may not notice the clean floor, and the passenger texting in the back seat may not comment on the driving, but you don\’t know that they haven\’t been affected in some subtle but positive way.
One thing we know for sure: the well-executed picture, the musical passage, and the sentence are each balm for the painter, the musician, and the writer herself. In times of stress and distress, we can take comfort in the knowledge that we have done our task as well as possible, and that in ways that may never be apparent we have applied some balm to the wounds of this suffering world.