Some people say Homer did not exist. We also talk about what he wrote, the Iliad and the Odyssey. So someone wrote them, but was it a guy named Homer? Perhaps there is some mythology going on here.
Writers not only write about mythology, even modern mythology, like baseball stories, but writers can become mythology, like Jack Kerouac as a symbol of the wide-open physical (and by implication, political) freedom of America. Because writers are inherently liars, and because in order to do what we do, we must also have unreasonable egos, I think we probably like the idea of becoming mythological. I stride the earth scattering the vivid verbal fruit of my creations.
Within our scribal tribe, sometimes—maybe just once in a little while—we help to manufacture our own mythology. Who’s going to stop us? Did I ever mention that I was an Eagle Scout, that I became high school Valedictorian, that during a vacation in France I ended up living for a week drinking wine with a woman who sang in a night club, that once during a thunderstorm I helped my grandfather recapture two horses that had gone wild and escaped, or that during a stay in Russia (when it was still the Soviet Union) I snuck away illegally from Moscow and took a train to Leningrad for a few days?
Some of those things are true. Some are not. Maybe.
But aside from a tiny tendency to tuck away the rough edges of reality, I want to consider something here more at the heart of what a writer is. To begin with, writers have an inherent ability with and interest in language. Such an interest and ability are not really to our credit, we’re just born that way. Being born is nothing you can honestly brag about—not that this will stop us from bragging. What we’re born with we can call talent, but without development, no talent is worth much. Serious writers learn the technical skills of the vocation, like how to properly use an apostrophe, goddamnit. Or more subtly, how to make it sound real when two people fall in love.
As writers, we act like we’re special…but so do all humans beings. In fact, everyone is special. It’s not just a cliche that we’re all unique, with our amazing, unlikely existence in the universe. Writers are not unique in wanting to be recognized for our existence, though we also claim to have a special talent, and no doubt that is sometimes true. Some people have a talent for language, or for stories, for creating characters, and so on.
There’s a question here that I’ve been sort of heading toward, in my sloppy, rambling way. Writers often want to claim, and sometimes maybe we believe it, that we have a unique way of seeing the world. But is that really true? What would it mean “to see the world differently”? My inclination is to say that seeing the world in a unique way (whatever that might mean) has nothing to do with being a writer. Probably philosophers see the world in a special way, and God knows they’re not writers.
Or consider Salvador Dali. Whatever was going on in his head, if his paintings are any indication, wasn’t what I see. Similarly, in an auditory way, with Mozart or Miles Davis. And really, I think you could find an auto mechanic somewhere, or a school janitor, that if you talked to them long enough, you’d come away asking, “How did they think of that?”
Here’s a possibility that seems most likely to me. Everyone, right down to the last untouchable in some dreary little village in India, has a unique vision of the world. The difference with writers is just that we have a voice—we talk about it. So I’m going to use my voice to describe how I sometimes see the world, though of course you have your own way.
Picture a marble floating in space. One hundred yards away is another marble, and in a different direction, also a hundred yards away, is another marble. Between these marbles there is no physical matter, just emptiness. If you look at this in the right way (in my analogy) the marbles are too small to be seen, so you see nothing but emptiness. Now imagine a thousand marbles just as spread out, then a million, then a billion billion. There is still mostly emptiness. The marbles represent atoms, or parts of atoms, or quantum particles if you like. Some of those marbles have energetic attractions to one another and stick together. By doing so, they make things, such as our bodies, but our bodies and everything else are mostly empty space. Within that space, there is energy, though no one really knows what energy is. And within that energy there is thought, which we know because we think about things.
The universe is a network of almost nothing in the emptiness, filled with energy and thought. Almost 3,000 years ago, one of the beings in that emptiness thought about what it would be like if a guy had magical difficulties getting home from a war, and he wrote the Odyssey. We call him Homer.