It must have been nearly fifty years ago, the moment when the idea hit me. I was in the early stages of defining my life by my writing, by the daily process of shaping meaning out of words. And a thought I had long understood but never truly examined stopped me in my tracks.
Our sun one day will die. In something like five billion years it will expand into a red giant and gobble up this precious Earth. And in that time all remnants of our civilization, all remnants of us, will be obliterated.
I had known this for a long time, of course. Intellectually, anyway. But what struck me that day was the realization that not a single word I write will survive!
What is the point? I found myself asking the surrounding air. Why write anything if it’s not going to last?
Looking back at that moment I can’t help but smile at the solemn young woman asking such a question. In the first place that the death of our sun will bring the end to humanity rather than our accomplishing it ourselves is the very epitome of wishful thinking.
And beyond that, who did I think I was going to be? Shakespeare?
Between then and now, I have published more than one-hundred small books. And though I haven’t taken a count, the majority of them must already be obliterated . . . or at least out of print.
So much for waiting for the sun to gobble up the meaning I’ve been so busy thrusting at the world.
However, the question I asked that day is still as profound as it is narcissistic. What does anything mean if meaning doesn’t last?
And slowly, I’ve begun to gather some kind of an answer. An answer for myself, anyway. I am here, everything I think and believe and understand is here in this moment. That is all I—or anyone—will ever have. This now.
My life is simultaneously long and fleeting. Oh, how long and oh, how fleeting!
My first children’s novel came into the world in 1976, and it happened to command attention. That wasn’t because of any inherent value in my work but because of the kind of work I happened to need to do. The 1970’s were the time of what was called “the new realism” in children’s literature, a much more tame realism than what we see today without requiring any kind of label, and realism happened to be what I needed to write.
Having come out of a generation of children who were consistently lied to—“for our own protection,” you understand—and having had a mother who was spectacularly good at protective lying, I came into my career with a fierce need for truthtelling. Children deserved the truth, after all. They needed it!
I look at my “cutting-edge” novels now and wonder whether they would even be published today. Certainly most aren’t being read. I confess I haven’t the slightest desire to read them myself.
And so the reality is that I don’t have to wait for the sun to gobble up my work. It came into the world with its own self-destruct button.
As we all do.
But does it matter that those books happened, even if they are gone now?
It takes the perspective of age to look back and say with confidence, yes, it does. It matters because of the ripple effect.
My being in the world, this book of mine being in the world, will make a difference to someone, however small. And inevitably that difference will be passed on to someone else, probably someone neither my book not I ever had contact with.
And on and on and on from there.
It’s all we have, I think. We writers.
We are here to make what difference we can, and it doesn’t matter whether the noticeable impact from that difference lasts minutes or eons, it will be in our world forever.
Until the sun gobbles us up, of course.
But then I’m not going to worry about that. I’m not even going to spend my days bewailing the more immediate endings hovering out there.
I have this moment, after all. And it is enough.