Existentialism 101: What is the Point of Writing?

The news is rather sad these days, what with the planet heating up, the glaciers melting, the bees dying, bacterial superbugs, the takeover of humanity by robots, the closing of Old Country Buffet, and all the rest. The world is one giant clusterfuck of calamities and catastrophes, it seems, and it doesn’t matter what we do, we’re doomed. So why even try?

It’s understandable that an aspiring writer trying to make sense of life on this forlorn little planet might one day sit down, take a deep breath, and ask himself: What is the point?

Of writing, that is—of spending a significant chunk of every day manufacturing words that are just going to burn to a crisp when the sun collapses on itself five-billion years from now and the whole solar system explodes in a giant supernova? Black holes are notoriously bad places to launch a publishing venture, and the job options for writers in other parts of the galaxy are limited by a general lack of creatures with eyeballs.

So why write at all?

Why wrestle with a life of the mind when you could just as easily immerse yourself in pleasures of the flesh and the restorative power of a strong, stiff drink?

Why toil away in anonymity and poverty, when you could be running a bio-tech firm and making millions?

Why ask the big questions when you can’t even get answers to the small ones—like, where is the melon baller?

Why indeed?

“What is the point of it all?” is a difficult question, though. And it is difficult because it brushes awfully close to several other existentially uncomfortable questions, such as “What is the meaning of life?” and “Can cats really smell death?” And, since life has no meaning, and no one knows what goes on in a cat’s mind, there is an understandable amount of confusion around the matter.

In the past, many people took up the pen as a hedge against death, scribbling feverishly in the belief that while their flesh may one day wither and rot, their words would live on, granting them a kind of immortality. But now that humanity’s demise is a scientific certainty, immortality itself is an illusion. All those people who are cryogenically preserving themselves in the hope that science might one day “cure” them are idiots. Science doesn’t cure anything—all it does is point at a problem and tell us how long it’s going to be before it’s a bigger problem. What’s really going to happen to these people is that the sun is going to explode, they are going to melt, and when they do, they will be granted about two seconds of consciousness before it dawns on them that, oh shit, they’re screwed.

Then boom, oblivion.

Nowadays, people blog feverishly in the hope that their words will live on electronically. What they don’t realize is that there will come a time when far too much of the writing on the Internet has been done by dead people. When that happens, all the living people will start demanding that the Internet contain more “relevant” content, and that all the writing from dead people be archived in a musty building somewhere, where it’ll be impossible to find their work unless you approach the bespectacled gnome at the front desk and use your “quiet voice” to utter the secret password: “Help.” Which people in the future will never do, of course, because no one wants a handout.

Plenty of reassuring words about the historical value of this content will be said to mollify the skeptics, but sooner or later some real-estate developers are going to decide that high-rise luxury condos should go where that building is sitting. The building will then be leveled, and the archive will be destroyed.

And once again, dead people will be dead.

Since cheating death through writing doesn’t work anymore, other reasons to write must be found. Unfortunately, finding a good reason to write isn’t easy, which is why so many writers blow their brains out. Usually, these poor souls get caught in the “meaning” trap—by which I mean they can’t accept the fact that they’ve spent their lives trying to make meaning out of something—life—that has no meaning. And it’s true: If you keep insisting that life on Earth has to have some sort of purpose, and that everything here happens for a reason, you are in for some serious disappointment. It’s much healthier to accept the absurdity of it all, laugh at life’s cruel ironies, then order a pizza and watch some TV.

When existential despair strikes, the key thing to remember is that every generation throughout history has had it worse than the last. In prehistoric times, children got eaten by dinosaurs. In the Middle Ages, people ate rats and got the plague. Then war got very popular. Our parents and grandparents had to live through World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and Vietnam. Then the Cold War set in, and everyone had to live with the daily threat of nuclear winter.

And so it goes. Like our ancestors before us, our generation is beset with a host of seemingly intractable problems. And yes, a strong argument can be made that no one in history has had it worse. Spotty cellphone service, sluggish download speeds, long airport security lines, insufficient parking, high drug prices, clogged gutters, recycling hassles, over-scheduled children, car repairs, noise pollution—taken together, these things gnaw away at our quality of life, reducing human existence in the 21st century to an endless series of unnecessary annoyances that really should have been taken care of by now.

But they haven’t. And so it falls to us to try to make life in this Earth just a little less hellish.

For me, at least, that’s a good enough reason to write. Because I know that if weren’t sitting here typing away in my basement for hours at a time, I’d probably be out making things worse for everyone. The least I can do is protect humanity from my shortcomings by limiting the damage I can do in the outside world. This way, the danger I pose to society remains confined to my house and backyard, where my behavior can be held in check by a high fence and signs warning the neighbors.

The pen is mightier than the sword, they say, but I don’t see how that’s possible unless you stab them in the neck when they’re not looking. So when I die, the world really should thank me—because if I weren’t writing all the time, who knows what kind of trouble I might cause?