From “Why They Write”

From the July/August 1999 issue of Shipmate, the alumni magazine of the US Naval Academy. 

© 1999 David Poyer.Captain David Poyer ‘71, USNR

I sometimes tell those who ask that the only worthwhile reason to write is to get even.  Income and fame are illusory motivators for any artists, just as promotion and glory are illusory motivators for military officers. Neither is certain or even likely, and even if they come, as those who have them testify, they have a dark side; all too quickly they can turn to ashes in the mouth.Getting even–which is my shorthand phrase for transforming despair into art, and attempting to at least speak out for justice in an unjust world–is a powerful motivator. But to drive us through the long apprenticeship, and the long labor of creation after that, it must be combined with something else. It has to become a duty.

The concept of duty I understand very well.

Who assigned it to me, who gave me these orders? I can only tell you what happened the summer I was four. My mother was reading to me on the back porch, and I asked her, “Where did this book come from?” Now, usually when I asked this, about clouds or butterflies, say, she’d answer, “God made it.” This time she answered, “A writer wrote it.” With that sentence in my ears I suddenly understood, even as a child, what I was and what I was here for.

And that’s the only reasonable answer to the question “why.” An artist becomes an artist not because he can, but because he must; a writer writes because telling stories is as natural and inevitable for him as the welfare of the nest is for the ant. I know that’s teleological thinking, but from where I stand I can explain it in no way that feels more truthful. Becoming a published writer, or a competent writer, is another process, true. Learning to write well enough to say what I wanted to say took me years of struggle, millions of flawed and inadequate words, and hundreds of rejections and failures; and the struggle, rejection, and failure never ends. But I honestly think one doesn’t become a writer. Like the Calvinist Elect, one either is, or is not.

As I see it, writing literature and being a naval officer–at least in the United States–have never had much overlap. If I may generalize outrageously, the official attitude toward in-service writers seems to have evolved from active antipathy, in Mahan’s time, through suspicion in Wouk’s era, to a current state of not thinking about them at all. This suits me perfectly. I would hate to belong to a service that promoted writing in any concrete way. That would inevitably lead to “official” writers and sanctions against those who did not toe some party line. The two occupations (I don’t say “professions,” because writing is not a profession–writers take no oath to serve or obey anyone) exist in separate spheres.

But in terms of reading literature, resorting to it both as play and as some more rigorous training in thought and ethical choice–this is the relationship the Navy and Marine Corps should be promoting (And the USMC actually seems to think along these lines to some extent). As I said in a speech to the Plebe Class at USNA three years ago, “It is no accident that every human society communicates its values by means of the STORY.” I told them that fiction discusses the moral challenges they will face as leaders; the challenges that would destroy them if they did not 1) recognize them and 2) make their decisions based on a broader ethical conception than that of day to day. Fiction, I said, was a way to strengthen that deeper understanding that not only helps them recognize what they must do, it lends them the strength to do it in the face of tremendous costs.

It may be that I am speaking too simplistically here, but I don’t see the point of separating the departments of history, literature, leadership, and ethics–especially at a military academy, which aims to inculcate less a habit of critical thought, than an ethos of duty. In my view they are all aspects of one and the same discipline (in both senses of the word). We may multiply the number of administrative positions by teaching them separately; but in my view, we lose a powerful mutually enhancing effect. The ancients understood the internalizing of virtuous behavior through study of the greatest works of fiction and drama. We don’t. We fragmentize everything, and reduce them all to a dry as dust set of rules, shorn of the human drama that embeds them so firmly in the memory as to become guides to action in the most difficult circumstances of life.

Advice to aspiring writers? I put all I have to offer on technique, inspiration, and marketing on my website.  But the most difficult question for an aspiring writer, I think, is this: Am I really a writer? To that end I will list several symptoms: a burning sense of outrage, a monomaniacal perfectionism, a compulsion to escape into fantasy on an hourly basis, a long steeping in some form of fiction and drama, a lifetime feeling of being an outsider and an impostor, and a Moses-like ability to keep the faith through forty years in the desert. These are, in my view, significant indicators you may be condemned!

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