Saturday, 16 January 2010
Write for your life
A few months ago I wrote a post about reading as a way of making sense of terrible experiences and events. Finding our own strong emotions expressed eloquently and evocatively by great writers can be a source of consolation or comfort. A book offers companionship, too, a respite from isolation in shared humanity stretched through millennia.
But we are writers. When terrible things happen to us we not only read, but also write about them directly, or indirectly. We might write letters and emails to try to fix or make sense of things, but we also write about the experience itself and can't avoid doing so. Writing is our way of making sense of the world. It is therapeutic, it helps us to work out what we think and feel.
Therapeutic writing is best kept private - only if you are going to polish it with the dispassionate, objective skill you would apply to any other piece is it worth making public. If writing about the experience becomes a dire, slushy story steeped in self-pity like a used tissue, it's best to consider it therapy and leave it hidden. If the writing is In Memoriam, it's worth publishing as a beautiful testament to the beloved, a great and inspiring work of art, and a lifeline to those who come after.
Some people write for revenge, barely disguising the people who have hurt them and seeking their public humiliation. Revenge writing might make you feel better, but it's a bad idea to do it as a reflex, at least in public. A scriptwriter who named two characters in an episode of CSI after a couple who had annoyed her in a real-estate deal was sued for $6 million for defamation in May 2009. A classier revenge is to write something which becomes immensely successful, thus (the writer supposes) leading the perpetrator(s) to be annoyed that the grief they caused has been used not to hurt the writer but to bring them success, fame, wealth and/or artistic fulfilment. Songwriter David Carroll followed this route when he wrote United Breaks Guitars to get back at United Airlines, who would not pay compensation for breaking his guitar. The song became a YouTube hit, which has now had more than 7 million hits.
These commercial incidents were no doubt distressing to the writers, but were hardly earth-shattering tragedies. When things get serious, so do the works of art. Claire Bloom wrote unflatteringly in her autobiography about her ex-husband, American novelist Philip Roth. You might think someone as intelligent as Claire Bloom would have had more sense than to provoke a novelist like that. Roth responded by writing I Married a Communist, lambasting Bloom in a thinly-disguised bad wife. The Roth-character in the novel wants revenge on his wife (who has written about him): "After that book of hers, all he thought about was how to inflict [human cruelty] ... what this huge man really wanted to do was to lash out." Bloom sued Roth.
There are hundreds of examples of writers channelling the pain of real-life trauma into art. Harold Pinter's play Betrayal was based on his affair with Joan Bakewell, and although the story is hardly news she's now trading on it in the wake of Antonia Fraser's book about her life with Pinter, Must You Go?
I don't know whether I will write anything useful or meaningful from current difficulties. I don't have any plans at the moment, but maybe it won't be obvious to me that I'm doing it. I did come across a short story I had started many years ago when wondering how to get out of a relationship that wasn't working. In the story, which is somewhat Gothic to say the least, there is a character who is a conjoined twin, and his twin has died. He has to go about his life, dragging the corpse around with him. Astonishingly, I did not see the significance of this motif at the time. I gave up on the story because I couldn't see an interesting way of dealing with the twin. (In real life, the twin rotted and dropped off.)
So for now I will fiddle around with things and see what sticks - and maybe nothing will, or maybe something will be but I won't see what it is. But if a critic comes across it in a hundred years time, they might see immediately how it relates to my current life. That can lead us into a whole realm of critical theory about authorial intention and constrained readings. But I'll leave that to someone else and ask instead for other examples in the comments of writing in response to real-life tragedies or difficulties. Inspiration, please!