From The Writer’s Desk: Must Writers Suffer?

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.

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18 Responses to From The Writer’s Desk: Must Writers Suffer?

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    You got to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues…

    Back when I first contemplated a life of writing in about fifth grade, I thought about the fact (as I considered it then) that good writing is the product of suffering, of struggle in the face of unanswered questions. And I thought it was sad that I would therefore never be a good writer, since the gospel (again, as I saw it at that time) the gospel answers all those questions and therefore prevents one from suffering in the ways that are necessarily for truly Great Art.

    (Pause a moment here for helpless snickers at my naivety, on quite a few fronts.)

    I dunno. Experience undoubtedly informs writing. On the other hand, it’s my sense that pretty much everyone suffers, though some doubtless more than others. We really don’t have much evidence that suffering beyond the normal scope is necessary or even helpful in order to become a good writer.

    I agree that the problem comes when writers try to write beyond the scope of what they know–either from experience or through careful observation and analysis. And one of the keys to good and powerful writing is for a writer to tap deeply into his or her own experience–the things that he or she feels deeply. At least, that’s my perception.

  2. Is “experience” really what is necessary? Granted, Joseph Smith certainly went through a lot, and was told that it was for his “experience.” But just having experiences is not going to guarantee great writing or greatness of any kind.

    I’d like to suggest that there are two other things that are required, which not only help with experience, but may, in some ways replace the need for it: empathy and imagination.

    Writers can imagine and have empathy for all kinds of things they have not actually experienced. If not so, how could so much of science fiction and fantasy work (as in make use of the “willing suspension of disbelief”) for their readers? How could those who write from the point of view of a murderer do so without actually killing someone?

    You can have experiences without being able to turn them into great art, but without imagination and empathy, I don’t think you can create great art, even with the experiences.

  3. Marianne Hales Harding says:

    This brings to mind a couple of things:

    1. Watching a biography of a celebrated artist’s tragic life with my brother-in-law and having him ask me why I wanted to go into the arts if it was going to mean I would have a tragic life. As if the tragedies in this person’s life wouldn’t have happened if she had become a dental hygienist!

    2. Realizing through my own personal experiences with suffering that everyone suffers–even those who have a good attitude about it. I’m all for a cheery disposition but…I’m sorry…I don’t believe you when you say you have had no suffering in your 37 years. I just don’t believe you. Everyone experiences pain (deep pain!), even if they aren’t an alcoholic incest victim with a chronic disease.

    I do think an awareness of your own suffering and the suffering of those around you greatly informs your art but, hopefully, you don’t have to endure every type of suffering or even just the Top Ten to be able to effectively convey the human condition.

    PS As much as my faith helps ease suffering in the long run…nothing can blunt the initial blow, IMO. So your writing won’t necessarily suffer from your faith! ;-)

    • Marianne Hales Harding says:

      Clarification to point #1 — many of the tragedies in this artist’s life were things like her mother dying young or other such things clearly unrelated to choice of how she spent her days (not tragedies like becoming a drug addict because she hung out with other drug addicts).

    • Josh Allen says:

      Marianne,

      Fair points, but to clarify, I never intended to say that I’ve had “no suffering in my 37 years.” Certainly, that’s not true. I’ve faced challenges and heartaches. Honestly though, I’m not carrying my tristeza around with me everywhere I go. It’s not a permanent companion. I’m pretty happy.

      Also, I’m not a Pollyanna, and I’m not naive. I know that 37 good years are a guarantee of nothing and that my happy house-of-cards life could come crashing down in no time at all.

      My questions about art, however, are these: Does a person who feels genuinely happy about life and who has had to endure relatively little suffering face any unique challenges in creating art? Is there really a relationship between personal pain and artistic creation? Or is that relationship overplayed?

      • Neil Aitken says:

        I think the figure of the “suffering artist” is overplayed in media. I run into people in MFA and PhD programs (but more often undergraduates) who subscribe to this view and feel that they need to construct a suffering persona in order for the muse to visit.

        I’ve faced plenty of terrible things and not so terrible things in my life. But overall I’m quite happy. Or perhaps, it’s as Kahlil Gibran says in The Prophet,

        “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.

        And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.

        And how else can it be?

        The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

        That joy is only possible (and think Lehi & Nephi & Eve as well) because of sorrow. Were it not for sorrow, we would not know joy. And often (like Gibran suggests) it is the very same things that produce these emotions – joy while we have it, sorrow when we lose it, joy again when it is restored.

  4. Neil Aitken says:

    I agree with Kathleen that great suffering does not necessarily produce great art (further, I’ve seen plenty of evidence in the form of bad break-up poetry that comes across my desk as the editor of a literary journal).

    I believe that every experience we set out to write draws its energy from very basic human experiences: discovery/birth, loss, the threat of loss, the anticipation of reunion, and restoration. There is something universal about engaging with these themes. Writing well usually entails an awareness of how one seemingly unrelated incident or moment actually resonates with something larger and deeper. There are patterns and echoes lurking throughout. Such correlations do not need to be spelled out explicitly, but the writer should have a sense of what they are working toward. It is key for a writer to develop a sense of their own internal topology, their “personal mythological landscape” as one of my former creative writing instructors described it. Power comes from an awareness of how these individual experiences correlate with each other and with our larger view of the world and the eternities.

    I think good writing requires the exercise of agency, decisions and consequences, both for the author and for the characters – and perhaps even for the reader. There are risks, things at stake, things that must be sacrificed to continue on. There must be an honesty that rises beyond the simple narrative of fact. There are lines drawn and lines crossed.

    Why does good writing often come after great suffering? I suspect it has more to do with the individual writer’s response to suffering, the introspection and self-evaluation that often occurs in the aftermath, than it does with anything inherent in suffering itself. We write to make sense of the world. We write to restore what we’ve lost. To rebuild and repair. To create a home for some restless emotion that stirs within us. I believe in many respects good writing is developed much like faith, through its exercise and application, through recognition and repentance, and through grief and desire to become one.

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      I like what Neil says here, particularly his last paragraph.

      I don’t think the problem for Mormon artists is that we don’t suffer, but that Mormons tend to think that suffering is a sign we aren’t faithful. So we rush it; we don’t patiently feel it, all sides of it, in and out. I do think an understanding of human emotions is vital to writing that moves readers, but suffering is only a part of those emotions.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      I’ll second Lisa’s second. It’s the consideration of context, meaning, and impact that make any experience useful—or the art that explores it. Merely documenting the pain is not art in my mind; it’s coming to greater understanding of the true(r) nature of the thing is a way that effectively shares that understanding with an audience.

      Which suggests that *any* experience should be fair fodder for art, though moments of pain and transition tend to resonate at a more personal level to a larger audience.

      The idea that as Mormons we are afraid of too close an inspection of either pain or joy is something I’ve heard a lot, but not something I have much direct experience with; the people I hang with tend to discuss this sort of thing a lot. All these things are for our experience and (can be) to our good if we strive to come to understanding and eventual peace—if not acceptance.

      But I don’t think suffering is the only road to that deep introspection; it’s just the most commonly understood one. I think the tragedy is that we spend far more time analyzing our pain and not nearly enough analyzing our joy. Either ought to lead to transcendent understanding that should have deep meaning for the rest of us.

      • Sorry, but I have a little trouble with the idea of Mormons per se even tending to think suffering is a sign of unfaithfulness.

        It’s probably human nature to tend to try to find a reason for suffering. In fact, isn’t that part of what creating art is about?

        But I would think that Mormons are more likely to tend to not think suffering is a sign of unfaithfulness, because we have plenty of examples in our own history to counter that kind of thinking. Not to mention the examples of leaders like Neal A. Maxwell who suffered quite a lot before they were called home.

        • Moriah Jovan says:

          Sorry, but I have a little trouble with the idea of Mormons per se even tending to think suffering is a sign of unfaithfulness.

          I have to disagree with that and agree with Lisa. I can’t remember a time someone talked to me about their trials and didn’t say, “I’ve been faithful. Why is this happening to me? What more could I have done?” or a variant thereof.

          Happens with illness. Happens with death. Happens with a child gone astray. Happens with the sight of the “perfect” family at church who are, as it happens, healthy and wealthy, and one wonders what they did that you didn’t or aren’t, and hence, find oneself totally inadequate in the sight of God.

          As a culture, we are almost totally focused on works, and furthermore, works that are above and beyond simple commandment-keeping.

        • Well, how do you argue against anecdotal evidence, cultural Mormonism, and all that?

          Suffering = unfaithfulness certainly isn’t part of the doctrine, nor do scriptures (literature connection) support it.

          Maybe that’s something we need to write more about, though, when we write about suffering.

          Are we going to go along with the culture, or are we going to write about those people (and I submit that they are not all that uncommon) who don’t equate suffering with unfaithfulness? I also submit that it can be done without resorting to “preaching.” Or is that too much of a challenge?

        • Moriah Jovan says:

          Well, how do you argue against anecdotal evidence, cultural Mormonism, and all that?

          You’re right! It never happens! Because you’ve never experienced it! Awesome!

          Are we going to go along with the culture, or are we going to write about those people (and I submit that they are not all that uncommon) who don’t equate suffering with unfaithfulness? I also submit that it can be done without resorting to “preaching.” Or is that too much of a challenge?

          I’d totally read that when you got it done.

  5. Jack Harrell says:

    Thanks, Josh. I don’t think we’ll solve this suffering artist issue anytime soon, but confronting it is better than pretending we don’t suffer, or pretending that our suffering doesn’t matter because it will all be made right someday.

  6. Moriah Jovan says:

    It may not require suffering, but it does require some amount of crazy and possibly mental illness and, if you’re so inclined, chemical enhancement…

    Just sayin’.

  7. By the way, and speaking of suffering in Mormon history, I have to wonder if it isn’t a bit of overkill to emphasize the struggles of the Willie and Martin handcart companies when we create art about our pioneer heritage. After all, there were only a handful or two of handcart companies, and handcarts were only used for a very few years, compared to about 22 years of pioneers crossing the plains before the intercontinental railroad was completed.

    If Mormons do anything regarding suffering to excess, maybe it’s focussing on the more (dare I say “spectacular and sensational”? Nah) “newsworthy” examples of suffering instead of the steady, plodding, everyday stick-to-it-ivity regardless of smaller, though still painful, challenges of the majority of Mormons then and now.

  8. James Goldberg says:

    There’s a line of Ghalib’s that says something like: “Why travel to the mines when we have our own chests to dig in?”

    I think it’s struggle of the digging in your own chest more than whatever set of experiences you’ve had that makes the writing interesting. Pat Madden teaches something similar: almost anything, he says, can become transcendent when contemplated deeply and with the right mixture of fun and reverent awe.

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