Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Writing and Suffering

This morning, I woke up at the exact moment that I was shot in my dream. I was running down a hallway, and I sensed someone there with a gun, but he fired before I could raise mine. It didn't hurt. But I was tired and confused when I awoke, to the sunlight and the mild familiar walls of my room, the bloom of flowers on the table, the ritual of the day I had to start. I hate waking up. Not from lack of sleep, but because of the comfort of the bed, and the allure of my dreams. They are bizarre and extraordinary and sometimes terrible. But even with the nightmares, I'm not sure that I wake up feeling relief. Sometimes I simply want to find out what happens next.

I recently read an essay on the myth of the suffering artist. It was a lovely piece, and uplifting, and I liked the bit at the end, when he said:

If the budding writer just settled down and wrote, then he or she would become more and more who they are happy being, and might make things other people can like and feel happy about, too. Better still, the sheer effort of getting better, of pushing sentences to shine brighter, of fumbling about in the dark of half-formed ideas and feeling foolish and lonely and scared – that's more than enough suffering to be going on with.

But I don't know, I don't know if I agree that artists don't suffer more or less than anyone else. Everyone suffers. There's heartbreak and disappointment and regret and sickness and death. And everyone feels. But not everyone feels in quite the same way. The artist, the writer's sensibility is different. I'm not sure if it's better. It's bound with narcissism, with a never ending analysis.

A writer friend said the other night that writers are the most boring people in the world because we can only talk about the things that interest us with other writers. He didn't mean talk of craft or technique or process, though those are all part of it. I think he meant this over analysis, this greedy desire, need to express something inexpressible, that the rest of the world doesn't need to make sense of. And yet, we do. I do. To make narratives, to shape ordinary incidents into precious ones. And it is not that the writer suffers a more tragic life, but that reality itself becomes more damaging. Even the most idyllic life, read in the right (or rather, wrong) way, is full of minor catastrophes. If it sounds melodramatic—well, of course it is. But it is the writer’s narrative, the narrative of the writer’s life, and the truth of that narrative has nothing to do with the external narrative of reality.

Another friend told me once that we are so good at writing sad stories, yet perhaps the real challenge is to write a joyous one. I told that to the friend who told me that writers were boring. But the fact that life goes on, exists, despite the suffering, the tragedy—that’s the joy, he said. So though we think we might be writing calamity, in fact it is the greatest joy.

I see now that there is no good way of writing this.


I’ve been reading the essays of E.B. White, whose clarity and grace astounds me. “Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays,” he writes. The essayist must be content in his role as a second class citizen. (Funny, I always thought it was the aspiring, or the failed, novelist.) Yet his essays have the ability to transport me as much as a good novel can—maybe it’s better, because I can take solace in the knowledge that it was real. He writes about the quiet things, and when I read it I can feel it, that world frozen on the page, free to be revived.