My name is Bruce Feiler, and I’m an explainaholic. I first heard this word used to describe Isaac Asimov, and I knew instantly that I suffered from the same condition. It’s the incurable desire to tell, shape, share, occasionally exaggerate, often elongate, and inevitably bungle a good story. (That’s why we have editors, and spouses.)
I grew up as a fifth-generation Jew in the American South, at the confluence of two great storytelling traditions. After graduating from Yale in the 1980s, I moved to Japan. For young adventure seekers like myself, the white-hot Japanese miracle held a similar appeal as Russia in 1920s or Paris in the 1950s. The whole world seemed to be there. While teaching English in a small town, I began writing a series of “you’re-not-going-to-believe-what-happened-to-me” letters home. They were on crinkly, airmail paper. Six months later I went home to Savannah, Ga., to visit and everywhere I went people said, “We love your letters!”
“Have we met?” I would ask.
It turns out my grandmother had copied the letters and passed them around. They went viral in the 1987 sense of the word. “I should write a book!” I thought. I was so naive about writing, I went to the public library and checked out the only volume they had on the topic—an academic treatise about publishing from the WWII era.
But I was hooked. What appealed to me then is not all that different from what appeals to me today: the opportunity to plunge into a world I know little about, become as much a part of that world as possible, then leave and try to explain it to others.
In the 25 years since, I have followed more or less the same instinct through 60 countries, a dozen books, six publishers, two PBS television series, one wife, one set of identical twins, and one lost year fighting a life-threatening cancer in my left femur. I’m still walking (er, limping), and still writing.
But one question hovers over all of us who choose to spend our lives writing: why keep doing this in a world where so many forces are aligned against us? Over the years I’ve gotten many calls from friends who want to write books. I love these calls (“Spread the poverty!” I say), but I make everyone sit through a brief speech. “There’s only one reason to write a book,” I say. “You can’t not write the book. Every other reason is the wrong reason. If you’re doing it for love, money, sex, or fame, you may get those. But odds are you’ll have a book that’s spine out on your mother’s bookshelf, so the experience better have been worth it.”
To me, the experience is still worth it. I write because for me, it’s the best way to see. It includes all the things I love—traveling, learning, experiencing, reflecting, creating, and sharing, then starting all over again. I write because I can’t not write.
That reminds me of a story...
Bruce Feiler writes a column about contemporary families for the New York Times and is the author of five consecutive New York Times bestsellers, including Walking the Bible, Abraham, and The Council of Dads. He is the writer/presenter of the series Walking the Bible and the forthcoming Sacred Journey on PBS, and appears frequently as a commentator on radio and television.