In his 2007 Massey Lecture, Alberto Manguel retells a story he heard that explains why birds sing. As the story goes, the bird’s song is an adaptive behaviour meant to protect the flock from predators: when one bird spots a kestrel or cat it begins singing to alert the others to take flight. The alarm saves the flock but, unfortunately, things don’t go so well for the whistleblower who by sounding the alarm draws the predator’s attention to himself.
There is an argument that this story metaphorically applies to writers of stories, suggesting that the writer alerts the rest of us of a contemporary danger, be it some existential anomie or creeping social evil. I find it hard to argue with this functional explanation. If one were inclined to look for proof of the social role of the writer one would need to look no further than those titles that have claimed not only our imagination but our most prestigious writing awards — To Kill a Mockingbird, Grapes of Wrath, Night Breakfast on Pluto, American Pastoral, Disgrace — stories that have made us look deeply at those forces that tend to corrode our world. If one were inclined to extend the analogy just a little further, one might see what fate waits for the writer-as-whistleblower in less tolerant societies. For example: Salman Rushdie, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Yang Lian, Gao Xingjian, Chinua Achebe, . . . the list goes on and on.
And given that it is difficult to contest that the writer plays a critical role in alerting us to those ills or evils we have not yet come to see, or are too close to see, I’d like to suggest another perspective on why a writer writes.
A couple of years ago I purchased a series of tapes called Birding By Ear that identified birds by their songs; the introduction suggested reasons why birds sing, one of these being the desire to be identified by the mate. Even when the partner is out of sight the mate would be reassured that the two of them are still connected through voice alone. The thought of the possibility of being connected to our mates through the unique sound of our voices struck me. Reassured me. Caused me to reflect on how the tone and sound of our voice distinguishes us, and weaves us into a web of belonging.
This explanation of why a bird sings comes closer to my personal understanding of why a writer writes.
But if we are going to accept this ornithological metaphor, one must then question: Who is the mate? Is it literally, our loved ones? Or is there some sort of literary extension of meaning, with the mate being some idealized reader? I’d like to suggest that the definition of “mate” be extended even more broadly than just an idealized reader ... for an idealized reader is constructed in our imagination and therefore known to us. I think the “mate” is someone we don’t know. What this means is that the one we sing to, the one we don’t want to lose contact with, is a foreign “other,” someone not known to us, but someone whose very otherness completes us. I know I am in deep waters here. And I don’t want to sound like I’m talking from thirty thousand feet above terra firma, but I think that recognizing our need to be connected to the unknown “other” is at the heart of why a writer writes.
I feel I’ve got to reiterate that I don’t disagree with the perspective that the writer’s role can be functionally defined as helping us all see what we can not otherwise see and thereby alerting us to social ills or evils in our midst. This is a critical social role, and one not free from risk. (The risk here is not just the fear of social or political sanction, but the risk of becoming mired in moral righteousness or political ideology. When that happens the writing loses its capacity to reach anyone.) And although I believe the functional definition of why a writer writes is important and must be preserved, I also feel that this explanation must be supplemented by an understanding that enriches it. What I am suggesting is that the writer is more than a social or moral critic, but one who has discovered the uniqueness of his voice and with that voice reaches out, across space, time, and human distance to that unknown, alien “other” who is waiting to be reassured by the sound of that voice.
Who is the “other”? Someone we need to be connected to, someone whose foreignness completes us. And perhaps it is not always a separate person, but a strangeness we sometimes find within our own hearts.