I’ll admit it. I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve lived thirty-seven fantastically charmed years. I’ll spare you the sunshine-laced details of my history, but I’ll sum it up this way: good parents, good friends, good spouse, good kids, good job. I feel sort of like Hemingway’s Robert Jordan who says in For Whom the Bell Tolls, “I am of those who suffer little.”
I take no credit for my good fortune. In fact, deep down, I know I don’t really deserve my happy life. I’m not particularly gifted, particularly smart, or particularly driven. Also, I’m not particularly righteous. I’m not earning my good life through my holiness (and, to be clear, I don’t believe life works like that anyway). I don’t know any secrets to happiness. I’m just a lucky sap.
Which brings me to something that happened last month. I was on a park bench in London, England, reading a book. I should mention that I was in England on a professional-development trip, paid for by my employer and immediately given the green light by my wife, who cheerfully managed the lives of our four small children for the two weeks I was away. I was feeling pretty content, conscious of my remarkable good fortune and how it brought me to that park bench.
And then I read an essay titled “The Heartbreak Kid” by Michael Chabon. In it, Chabon recounts criticism a friend once gave him. “You have no tristeza,” his friend derided. Tristeza is Spanish for sadness, and Chabon seems to accept that a lack of it in an artist is a serious problem. He even claims that tristeza is the subject of “half the world’s library shelves.” The implication? Good writers know sadness. They’ve felt it. Lived with it. Carried it with them for years. Accepted it as a permanent companion. The essay concludes with Chabon finding tristeza when his marriage fails—a hollow sort of triumph.
Chabon’s ideas about sadness and writing are like ones expressed in Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” a story in which shipwrecked sailors endure cold, experience fear, face the cruel indifference of the universe, and witness death. That story’s final line says of these worn-down men, “They felt that they could then be interpreters.” In other words, now that they’d suffered, they were authorities. They could speak and maybe even write. They were qualified.
So I’ve been wondering a few things: Is my happy life bad for my art? Do I need more tristeza? Would I be a better writer if I’d maybe suffered a little more? If I’d witnessed more tragic deaths? More heartbreaks? As my life goes on and tragedies and sorrows pile up (which I believe they inevitably will), will my art improve? As parents and loved ones die, as my health deteriorates, as my children get old enough to start making really stupid mistakes, as unforeseen horrors materialize, will my writing become more mature? And how does my Mormon worldview play into all of this? Doesn’t Mormonism (like every religion) try to put suffering into a larger context? Doesn’t it try to explain suffering and arm its adherents to successfully deal with it when it comes? Will Mormonism ease the suffering I’ll someday face and by so doing blunt my artistic development?
I don’t have any good answers to these questions. And this post is more about asking questions than providing intelligent answers. I’d obviously like to waive suffering as a prerequisite to good writing, but I wonder if I can. I’ve sometimes criticized young writers by saying things like this: “John’s a good writer. He’ll be even better when life knocks him around a little more.” But I wonder if getting knocked around is what John and the writers like him (and me) really need. After all, isn’t every life—even a charmed life—fraught with all the conflict a potential writer needs?
Perhaps Chabon and Crane are wrong. Perhaps the quantity and depth of our individual suffering is irrelevant to the quality of our art. (Boy, I hope so.) Perhaps what really matters is how elegantly we handle the emotions we do understand, whether those emotions are painful or sublime.
I sometimes tell my creative writing students, “Before you can write well about death, you must first learn to write well about missing a bus.” And isn’t that true? Can’t missing a bus generate just as much material as a battle with cancer? Can’t a skilled writer turn the act of missing the ’10:15 to Denver’ into a kind of symbolic death? Can’t everyday human emotions—shame and pride and fear—generate just as much fodder for writers as deep human anguish? If writers are sensitive enough, can’t they get the emotional material they need through day-to-day anxieties—losing a wallet, staining the carpet, running out of milk?
I’d like to believe they can. But my ideas are a jumble. I’m not sure what to think anymore.
The whole thing is making me depressed.