The Invisible Writers

Many years ago I knew a grizzled old playwright named Ray. He lived off state disability checks, carried his manuscripts in brown paper bags, and drank cup after cup of black coffee, which I poured for him from behind the counter of the coffee shop where I worked.

He had one piece of advice for me: "Read Othello. If you want to be a writer you must first read Othello."

Ray was a blue-collar guy who had never gone to college, but he had read Shakespeare, checked out from the public library near the furnished room where he lived. Ray understood plot because he had lived and experienced it. He was a born writer.

Over the years I've met a diverse collection of writers who have never been published or earned any academic credentials, yet whose claim to the title of artist is genuine. These invisible writers are soldiers and bakers, convicts and salesmen, winos, hairdressers, firefighters, farmers and waitresses. Their only qualifications to literary authenticity are their writings and their desire to write. Often the only time they have is stolen time, and their private scrawls end up on cocktail napkins, penciled in the margins of receipts, on any piece of paper handy.

I got to know Tom Carson during the first Gulf War, shortly after his platoon had been sent to Kuwait. We never met in person. He had written to a former co-worker of mine who had moved and left no forwarding address. When I saw the U.S. military return address on Tom's letter, I decided to answer it myself. Our correspondence lasted through the war and after he returned to Fort Benning, Georgia.

During a hectic two-month period, Lt. Carson wrote 39 poems. His themes were the regimented insanity of military life, isolation and loneliness, the wind and rain of his soul. Carson wrote his lines in rare solitude, in a barracks or a tent. During the day, he told me, the thoughts gathered in his head; he censored them but the forbidden words found expression anyway, for even the U.S. Army cannot discipline the imagination.

People imprisoned in stultifying, menial jobs can summon, with even a minimal command of language, something entirely private, unfettered and incalculably powerful. Most importantly, it is something of their own creation that cannot be taken away. The sense of purpose and identity that comes with being a writer, creator of a private world, can be life altering.

I've known truck drivers who were natural-born storytellers; fishermen who paint starkly beautiful word pictures of life on a crab boat in the Bering Strait. I met a barely literate ex-convict whose short story about losing his wife and child in a revenge killing for a gang crime he'd committed was the most heartbreaking thing I've ever read. I met a recovering alcoholic who wrote about being abandoned by her husband. In a few simple paragraphs this uneducated woman in her mid-50s expressed a universal sense of loss in an entirely unsentimental fashion, something that cannot be taught in any MFA program.

My father, a novelist who was never published, once wrote about being fired for writing on the job. He worked on an assembly line in a factory that manufactured radios, and the foreman caught him writing one day while the neglected radio parts moved past him on the belt. "I was only half a radioman," my father wrote. "In my heart, I was a poet."

Chester Himes wrote in The Quality of Hurt: "No matter what I did or how I lived, I had considered myself a writer....It was my salvation. The world can deny me all other employment, and stone me as an ex-convict...as a disagreeable, unpleasant person. But as long as I write whether it's published or not, I'm a writer."

I met Celia at a roadside diner, where she cooked greasy breakfasts for travelers whose faces she'd never again see. Writing, for Celia, was a way of being elsewhere, of undoing, undreaming, her mundane daily life. The monotony of her job and the deadening rituals she performed daily were the inspirations for the poems she scribbled on used order tickets. To hate your job and do nothing about it is a failure of imagination: a true life sentence.

A Frenchman I know who was a maitre d' at one of Washington's finest restaurants, possesses a novel he composed in the twilight time between the lunch rush and the dinner hour. His joy on writing it was immeasurable. That it may never be published did not faze him. The point is that he created it. He finished it. It is his.

"Fiction completes us, mutilated beings burdened with the awful dichotomy of having only one life and the ability to desire a thousand," Mario Vargas Llosa wrote.

I've often looked for my old playwright friend Ray's name in print, but have never seen it. I imagine him sitting in a coffee shop somewhere, brow furrowed as he revises lines of his latest play, completely absorbed in the world of his characters. I'm sure Ray was frustrated at times that his work went unrecognized, but it never occurred to him to quit, just like it would never occur to him to stop breathing.

It is not strictly a tragedy that Ray's plays, the maitre'd's novel or Celia's poems remain unpublished. Much of the work comes into being for private reasons of the heart. If every sentence that was written was printed and bound we would drown in a sea of words – as it is, thousands of books are hastily published, barely read and forgotten. Writing itself is the aim, for it is writing, not publishing, that transforms individual human experience.

To write, even in obscurity is worthwhile. As Samuel Becket put it, writing is a way of leaving "a stain upon the silence."

Tai Moses is a senior editor at AlterNet.

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