Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Problem with Being Happy

            Or Musings on the Craft of Writing

            You may already be looking at the title of this post and thinking, "Okay, where's he going with this? What problems could possibly arise from being happy? Isn't the point of happiness that you don't have any problems?"

            All very true. And really, I don't find there are any major problems that come with happiness, none at all. Except one. Being happy, it seems to me, makes it very, very difficult to be creative.  Our culture supports, perhaps feeds, this notion. Because the romantic ideal of the artist, of course, is the tormented soul, struggling against the injustices and cruelties of the world, producing his or her masterwork, and then expiring, perhaps Poe-like, face down in a gutter in Baltimore.

            This ideal is as over-romanticized as the life and works of the poet I referenced (nothing against Poe.) But I believe there is some truth to it. It is hard for me to bring to mind any artist who enjoyed major success who wasn't, at least to some degree, miserable and tormented. Musicians make the easiest case, from Cobain back through Hendrix and Morrison, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky to Beethoven. Painters follow a similar trend; Picasso and Van Gogh, all the Impressionists really, and straight back to Michelangelo, Raphael and Da Vinici. 

            The case for writers is even stronger. The struggles and sometime misery of the most widely recognized contemporary masters, Updike, Roth, Bellow, Rushdie, Amis, McCarthy regularly shows itself in their work. Most of that list struggle with, to put it simply, women, and the last, McCarthy, with death and its inevitability. Before my time, we had Hemingway blow his brains out, Eliot agonize over whether or not he dared talk to a woman at a party and, later, masochistically revel in being a sinner before a judgmental god, Joyce struggle with his own divorce from this same god,  and again, for all of them, women, women, women. Proust devoted 4,800 pages to his inability, over the course of decades, to develop a single healthy relationship with any of the three women he set his sights on. Dostoevsky agonized over the right way to live in relationship with god and man, and Tolstoy pretty much the same. We could go on.

            (I should acknowledge that the list here is entirely male, and predominantly white. I don't really have anything to say about that, just don't bother pointing it out unless it somehow adds to the topic.)

            I have no hand or eye for painting and how someone composes an entirely new tune out of thin air is one of the most incredible, and humbling, feats I can imagine. But writing is something I have more experience with, and I think it is in this particular form of expression that some degree of discontent is most essential for the artist to possess. Writing, literature, story-telling, whatever you want to call it, is about creating conflict. But without some degree of unhappiness, dissatisfaction, discontent, you have no conflict. Without conflict, you have no story.

             And this is a problem that I, personally, continue to encounter as I attempt to find a way to write fiction. The single, cardinal rule of writing is this: Write what you know. You can't create a realistic setting, characters or conflict if you haven't experienced those same things yourself.

             I've lived a mildly interesting life. I've traveled a little bit, and lived on both coasts of this country. I've drunk plenty, but never had a drinking problem. I've had romantic encounters with a number of lovely and fascinating women, but know nothing of the accompanying agony that seems to plague so many, perhaps more sensitive, souls. Death doesn't perturb me, at least not to the degree of abject fear that so many people seem to suffer from. The issue of god seems to me to be a question beyond our ability to answer in any meaningful way, so I don't concern myself with it.

             And thus I have exhausted all of the usual stand-bys for works of literature; love and sex, death and god. What's left? I really don't know.

             So I write this instead, not with any particular aim to this post, but perhaps in the hope that identifying and expressing the source of my own frustration, I can move beyond it.

              At the core of the problem is this; I don't understand unhappiness. I find it to be a very strange phenomenon and I don't understand why so many people are attracted to it. There are other things in life that I feel the same way about. I don't understand why people care about money so much. I don't understand why, for many people, their time, which is the most irreplaceable thing in human existence, is less valuable than money, which is, well, paper. I don't understand how anything could be more valuable than truth, even happiness, and why some people are willing to trade the lesser of these for the greater. I really don't understand how people fail to see that by relinquishing one of these, they inevitably lose both. I don't understand why people enjoy worrying, and how they've come to see deliberate unhappiness as the only way to find some small amount of happiness.

              But these are all different masks of the same character, unhappiness. When one lives a relatively happy life, it becomes increasingly difficult to relate to those who won't. As a writer, the task of capturing something you can't understand is very challenging.

             It is a surreal world we live in- us, a species like all others, designed by the processes of natural selection to pursue satisfaction as the highest good, but unique in our ability to understand what we seek. And yet, at the same time, in a great twist of cosmic irony, almost perfected in our ability to disregard true happiness when it is right under our noses.

              Perhaps that is it right there. All that remains is the surreal way people go about making themselves deliberately miserable. That might have done the trick...


  1. So I apologize that this isn't a comment for this specific post, but...

    I trust the judgment of Molly Phoenix, so I followed a link on her facebook page to her favorite blog.

    A couple of weeks later I've read the entire backlog and check compulsively for new entries because now it's my favorite to.

    Thanks for some really thoughtful, witty, insightful writing.

  2. Something to consider too is that in many of these cases the "suffering" that these writers dredged up was often not the real focus but window dressing for the choices they have to make. The real focus was on what the characters did, and the suffering worked more as a way to dress up the "why" they did it and add a sense of importance to those decisions. For instance Crime & Punishment is about the decision to murder and what brought that character to it, and what the consequences of that action were.

    I bring this up because no matter how good a life you have, there are situations you can create in a novel setting that create interesting conflict or moments of tension when even the best of people are faced with difficult or trying decisions. Also dealing with other people, especially those we are close to, who insist on being miserable (even if it's subtle) can make for interesting reading. To me the most important part is recognizing the characters outlooks and development through a story and then making sure to highlight the decisions that they make tell the story you want to tell. Even if one doesn't personally agonize over the trivial, it then just becomes a matter of finding situations that force the non-trivial...or possibly a lead up that exposes it as just that.

  3. Meghan: Thanks for taking the time to read the blog, and for the kind words. You can follow it here, or friend me on Facebook, so you don't have to waste time checking compulsively. :)

    And you can always trust the judgment of Molly Phoenix. ;)

    Brian: Yeah, I think you're right, sometimes. But if you look at the lives of most of the authors and artists I named, they actually were full of all the petty drama and turmoil that the more sensible among us avoid. But yes, sometimes that is true. This was honestly my least thought-out post. I just had some time and hadn't been writing, so I kind of just started typing and that's where it went.

    I know you've been doing a lot of writing lately, but have a go at fiction. It is sooo much harder. Maybe you won't find it to be, but I certainly do. Because the key, for me, anyway, is not to just write something to write it, but to write something people can read and relate to. But when it is hard to relate to the conflicts that consume many people's lives, it is hard to find common ground. Anyway, I'm just babbling and making excuses, and I have to go to work, so I'll just stop...

  4. No I agree to some point. Despite maybe not struggling constantly with our own demons,there is certainly plenty witnessed second hand. Even through this with even a little empathy one can get inside a characters head well enough to fake it. All of us, weather we indulge it or not, have experienced the cravings, or compulsions that get many people into trouble, recognize what creates their internal conflict and I think you can gain insight as a writer into what makes them tick because you can see it potentially in yourself.

    As for writing fiction, I have tried and it's too frig'n hard.

  5. Yeah, exactly. I guess that is the part, though, that I find harder than I expected. The three central characters of the novel I had made some progress on were all too happy, too well-adjusted, to easy to be very interesting. I found it really hard to write them making stupid choices. It might just be me. It is hard to "hang out" with people who seek out drama, and when you write a character you have to spend a lot of time with them... which is hard if you don't like them.