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!


Brian Keaney said...

Pain is readily transmuted into art. But the equation can work both ways. My publisher received a solicitor's letter threatening litigation in respect of one of my early novels. It had to be withdrawn from sale and pulped. My publisher was not happy.

Linda Strachan said...

I think writing about personal pain or distress, anger, jealousy or resentment can be very powerful but like a lot of writing it is best when it has had the benefit of time to 'compost' it and to allow the writer to move a step or a mile away from it. Even then perhaps a really honest friend or editor should be able to advise if it is still just anger or revenge.
Writing about personal trauma or emotional distress can be very useful and I believe it is used in counselling, but I personally think it is better burned afterwards and not made public.
In this age of tell all TV shows and personal internet blogs it is too easy for people to get carried away, when in reality it can be something that in a more sane moment we would never reveal any of it except to the closest of friends.

blog :

Bill Kirton said...

An interesting question. I’ve certainly used fiction to get my own back on people but none of the resultant characters or events will have been recognisable to them. This is partly because, for me at least, any attempt to depict a ‘real’ person in fiction stalls. The reality of the model gets in the way and the fictional character can’t develop so, paradoxically, he/she seems fictional. I use cruder methods – naming a sewage works after someone who’s crossed me, making them victims of extreme cruelty, giving them diseases – all these things give me a deep if childish satisfaction. But when it comes to real, painful experiences, I think we do use them, often without realising it and certainly at a distance from the event. The important thing is not to use the specifics of the personal pain but to distil out what makes it a common phenomenon.

Meg Harper said...

Oh yes, I've done the name thing too, Bill! Childish and harmless but nonetheless quite satisfying! I also made the mistake of trying ot write a novel based on the traumatic experience of my penfriend Eric Cathey escaping execution by a matter of 4 and a half hours - too soon and too raw but it was very healing for me. Interestingly, now a year on, when I can be more disinterested I'm getting interest from a journalist about the experience. Good and I think successful examples of this sort of writing are I think Susan Hill's 'In the Springtime of the Year' and (I think) 'A Family.' Also Isabelle Allende's 'Paula'. All totally heart-breaking but very good. Then there's C.S.Lewis 'A Grief Observed' which isn't quite so Kleenex hungry!

Apologies to the people who commented on my blog the other day - I was away from my desk until yesterday but I have replied now! Thank you so much!

Lucy Coats said...

Anne-I've just discovered a really good new blog which seems to me to fit very well with the idea that we can and do use our writing as a way to understand our emotional experiences. Whoever is writing this (she calls herself 'Abandonata') has found an excellent way of transforming the pain she is going through into art at Postcards from the Slough of Despond

Yes, it is sometimes quite raw to read, but the leavening of sharply focussed wit and humour balances any discomfort the reader may feel at the exposure of emotions not normally on public show. The short entries are easy to keep up with, and I'd recommend it to all SCS readers most highly.

Abandonata chooses to be anonymous, which I think frees her to say what she might not otherwise be able to. In my own case, I have chosen to be open about my own occasional depression in my Scribble City Central blog. But that's because it is so much a 'hidden pain' for many people, that I wanted to help others by standing up and showing myself. Writing about how it affected my creative work helped me to understand it too--and gave me courage to tackle it head on. In the end we all deal with pain in our own ways--but I do think that writing it down, whether for public consumption or not, externalises it and makes it somehow more manageable.

Lucy at