Thursday, June 19, 2014

Not in despair, just visiting.

Does great writing come from a tortured soul?

Hmmmmm.  On the one hand Sylvia Plath, I suppose.  But on the other, Ted Hughs.  Closer to home, Edgar Allan Poe but also Alexander McCall Smith. And Joyce Carol Oates, who seems to plumb the depths of human misery from a pretty cheerful homebase. And Maya Angelou, whose soul transcended no small measure of torture and ended up soaring.

It depends what we're talking about - mental illness, external hardships, or just existential angst and its attendant gloom.

I've never believed that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger, having seen too many people worn out and ground down by vicissitude. I'd argue that a writer - or radiographer or burger flipper - who overcomes illness or hardships to achieve a finished book - or clear x-ray image or evenly-browned burger - far from having lucked out with acquired strength, has triumphed.  But as to whether the books, x-rays or burgers are the better for it . . . wouldn't think so.

But say it's not Plath's or Poe's depression we're talking about. Say it's that low-level existential angst just rumbling along like a Leonard Cohen soundtrack.  Misery as lifestyle, because happiness is so uncool. Are writers more susceptible to its dreary embrace than others? Not the ones I've met. Not so far. Female poets are supposed to be the unhappiest writers of all, but the female poets I've met - Vicki Feaver, Kathleen Jamie, Carol Ann Duffy and Sharon Olds - are some of the most exuberant people imaginable, despite producing work that's sometimes plangent, sometimes searing. Perhaps they can visit despair and use it to such powerful ends specifically because they don't live there.

Who knows? I don't have an answer for this question.  But if anyone's feeling the tug of melancholy and wants help resisting it, I do have Henri the French cat. [click his name to watch - for some reason the link isn't showing up]


Paul D. Marks said...

I think the cat in the pic says it all, Catriona.

Anonymous said...

God bless you, Catriona. I needed a dose of Henri today. I laughed until I cried.

My angst today was not with regard to my writing, but with regard to my freaking day job!

Henri, and you, made me laugh. :)

Unknown said...

Excellent post! I think the existential torment is best left behind when we graduate from adolescence. However I believe that genuine suffering -- through mental illness or agonizing life experiences -- can enrich a writer's work. I don't believe it's mandatory, of course. But for a writer no experience is wasted.

RJ Harlick said...

Yup. I like the cat too.

Paul D. Marks said...

I think the cat in the pic says it all, Catriona.