A real book comes into being from nothingness, without even the biological roadmap of sperm, egg and instinct that guide much of animal life on the planet. Many books—commercial trash, series fiction, many mysteries, romance novels, guidebooks and shelf after shelf of others, exist in the opposite fashion from real books; which is to say, they preexist as commercial enterprises in the mind of some company or person, and then sink into oblivion as time passes. Making a real book is both a sweaty human enterprise springing from hard to fathom impulses, desires, ambitions and needs, and a challenging metaphysical puzzle, the answer to which concerns the deepest ontological and spiritual questions facing the human species. Some experiences in life are epiphenomena, particularly in the realm of the everyday—getting, having, striving, advancing, retreating, or conquering the job. Other experiences seem somehow to transcend the basic categories of the everyday. One of those is reading a real book or poem. Another of those is writing a real book or poem. There is every reason to earn money, save for a rainy day, invite a woman you admire to dinner, take care of business, and bury the dead. There doesn’t seem any worthwhile or obvious reason to sit down at a desk in front of a blank sheet of paper and begin:   “I am living at the Villa Borhghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.”

Thus, Henry Miller began his groundbreaking book, “The Tropic of Cancer”, a work devoted peculiarly to the topic of giving birth to art from nothing. Not even a story informs Miller’s creation; there is neither plot nor structure, form nor lesson plan. There is not even a climax and denouement, giving the book an appearance of ending. “Tropic of Cancer” adopts the stance that there is no reason one way or the other to go on, which is another way of saying that Miller accepts his destiny as a writer. The great short story writer Donald Barthelme said it best. “The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.” And so we see starkly the metaphysics of writing fiction—not knowing what to do in the face of some task or other. One must sweat the book out of the pen or typewriter (or, these days, the computer) despite the odds, announcing to the world one’s destiny. By rejecting the everydayness of the enterprise, a writer is unique. Again, in Miller’s words, “It is now the fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom…I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist. I no longer think about it. I am.”

Not knowing what to do, Robert Louis Stevenson set out for Belgium and France in the late 1870’s. He went by canoe along rainy, cold waterways on a journey that had no defining purpose. Later, home in Scotland, he wrote “Inland Journey”, which launched his writing career. Like Miller, he was an artist long before he became one, but in setting out for Belgium Stevenson discovered his fate, and in so doing actualized his deepest being in the world, a fate which thrust him onward year after year as a great traveler and poet. Writing, it would seem, is an act of existential validation, an overt acceptance that responsibility for one’s life falls squarely on oneself. You can’t marry into the writing life, nor are you born for it. Diplomas and certificates guarantee nothing. There are no parental guidelines. Some writers, Kafka springs to mind, have no literary ancestors or influences. Miller acknowledged the stark truth of his situation: He was alone and he was dead. Of course, not really dead—just living on borrowed time.

Make no mistake about it.   “Becoming a writer” is a long, difficult task that never really ends because there is no sure-fire escape from the everydayness that burdens the world. As Flaubert said, “Do not imagine that you can exorcise what oppresses you by giving vent to it in art.” Life goes on for writers, piano players, and garbage collectors alike. But, somehow, from the suffocations, longings, grief and brief happiness most of us are granted to suffer, there must be a way forward. Norman Mailer said, “It’s the life you can’t escape that gives you the knowledge you need to grow as a writer.”

The sad but obvious truth is that reading and writing is hard, punishing work. And what to the world looks like destiny is only the marriage of solitude and acceptance.