‘I write as if to save somebody’s life. Probably my own.’

I wonder if all writers feel this way. The quote is often shown in this form, though the complete thought comes from Clarice Lispector’s novel A Breath of Life: “I write as if to save somebody’s life. Probably my own. Life is a kind of madness that death makes. Long live the dead because we live in them.” Now, if you’re a writer do you still agree, or does the second part of the quote change your mind?

Lispector was a Ukrainian-born Brazilian novelist (1920-1977) who wrote novels and short stories in an unconventional style; very interior in approach. I may be proven wrong, but I suspect most readers don’t know of her, have never heard her name, much less read her books. She’s been compared to Joyce and Woolf, an idea she discounts.

I suspect many artists and musicians live (literally and figuratively) through their work. We often hear that creative people get drunk when they’re not composing, singing, painting, or writing. I can understand this. I’m sure people in other professions might feel this way as well, that they are not truly alive whenever they’re outside their element.

In a 1977 TV interview after she released The Hour of the Star, she said, “When I don’t write, I am dead. For the moment I’m dead. I’m speaking from my tomb.” She died later that year.

Most writers, including Lispector, I would think, create various forms of life support to keep them alive when they’re not writing. One of those is thinking about the next work in the queue while doing other tasks. Another is sitting at a table with others and not really listening because one’s characters are not only more interesting but need to have their say about what will be written next.

Perhaps a quote from The Hour of the Star, a novella I like a lot, brings more perspective: “I write because I have nothing better to do in this world: I am superfluous and last in the world of men. I write because I am desperate and weary. I can no longer bear the routine of my existence and, were it not for the constant novelty of writing, I should die symbolically each day.” 

Perhaps the writer isn’t literally dead when s/he’s not writing, but residing in a drunk tank or an asylum.

So much for retirement.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism and contemporary fantasy.