“Does a great writer have to have a tortured soul?”
That’s a trick question, right? If I say yes and then can’t produce evidence of my own tragic life, I am giving up all possibility of posthumous fame. (It would have to be after my death since I haven’t taken on the mantle of greatness yet and time is running out.) If I say no, I sound shallow and no one will believe I’ve read Dostoevsky, except maybe in comic book form.
[I digress: Does anyone else remember comic book editions of masterpieces? I swear I read The Man in the Iron Mask, Metamorphosis, and a couple other famous novels in honest-to-god comic books when I was a kid. I also read Lulu and Archie, so I didn’t have an entirely weird upbringing. But before graphic novels, I swear someone had the brilliant idea of reducing some pretty tortured stories to flimsy paper booklets to imprint gravitas on young minds.]
Anyway, back to the question, writers who can grab us and hold us captive with their words aren’t merely people who’ve experienced a lot of pain and suffering. The world is full of staggering sorrow, tragedy, cruelty, and fear and none of that necessarily leads to art. The great writers haven’t had more pain than other writers by some arbitrary measure; their gift is in picking it apart and looking hard at it, then expressing what they observe and feel in ways that become universal rather than interesting only to them. (This is true of visual artists also, I believe.)
I’d like to put in a plug for happiness as an equally valid road to greatness for a writer, by the way. If Hamlet’s a sign of Shakespeare’s greatness, so is The Tempest. Jane Austen’s characters may suffer in their own minds, but she makes sport of them and ends her stories with smiles. As Stephen King supposedly said: "“A tragedy is a tragedy, and at the bottom, all tragedies are stupid. Give me a choice and I'll take A Midsummer Night's Dream over Hamlet every time. Any fool with steady hands and a working set of lungs can build up a house of cards and then blow it down, but it takes a genius to make people laugh.”
The bottom line for me: Great writing is, for the reader, a personal, empathetic, transformative experience wherever we find it and whether or not it has a famously unhappy writer’s name attached to it. Which means, I suppose, I have some chance of occasional, if not generally acknowledged, greatness!