Does a great writer have to have a tortured soul? Why or why not?
by Paul D. Marks
Well of course the answer to this question is yes and no. How’s that for being unequivocal?
While many people think of writers, and artists in general, as having tortured souls, there’s no rule that says one must be tortured in order to be an artist.
So I wracked my brain trying to come up with some well-known writers whose names people would know who were happy and not tortured.
Zilch. Zero. Nada.
Couldn’t think of one.
We all know of the tortured writers of the present, past and near-past, Hemingway, Anne Rice, David Foster Wallace and possibly the queen of tortured writers, Sylvia Plath. The list is endless. And they created great art. But what about happy writers creating great art? Can it be done? The search for the happy writer continued.
I moved to the next step: checking the internet. And after a lot of searches, using different terms and ways of phrasing things, it seems I found one well-known writer who claims to be happy. Though when you see his name I think you’ll be surprised:
Philip Roth. Author of such happy-go-lucky stories as American Pastoral and Everyman.
According to Roth, and assuming the quote I found is correct ‘cause I never fully trust the net, he says, “I’m happy all the time, but a lot of people aren’t. I write about all those people. People in trouble make for interesting characters.”
So I guess even if the writer is happy the characters might not be and unhappy characters might make for more interesting characters.
I’m sure there’s other happy writers out there, but while the list of unhappy, tortured-soul writers is long and includes plenty of men and women, Roth is the only happy writer I could find.
This leads me to believe that many people who are tortured and scarred emotionally and/or psychologically one way or another perhaps go into writing as a way to exorcise those demons in the same way that it’s said that others with psychological problems go into psychology or psychiatry.
Artists of all kinds are said to be unhappy people: Comedians – most of them – are known to be unhappy in large measure. Lenny Bruce. John Belushi. Richard Pryor. Drug problems, early deaths in some cases. And musicians, from Beethoven and Kurt Cobain to Amy Winehouse and Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd. Fine artists like Edvard Munch, Georgia O’Keefe, Picasso, Gauguin, and, of course his pal, Van Gogh – all very depressed. The list in all of these categories is endless. And, of course, writers.
So maybe it is true that unhappy artists and writers – or characters – can reach into the depths of their souls, because they look inward – to touch some common threads that most of us wrestle with in our lives. And through their work we can see a mirror into ourselves and our society through which they can help us put things into perspective.
As for myself, I guess I would have to put myself on that long list of tortured souls. Without going into all the reasons why, I think if you asked people close to me, my wife and others, they would acknowledge that. And I would have to acknowledge it too.
That said, I don’t think a writer has to have a tortured soul. He or she just has to have a soul and enough introspection and empathy to be in touch with it so they give us a mirror to the world – give us something we as readers can relate to and connect with.
In the end, maybe writers – tortured souls or not – are like the pinot grapes that Paul Giamatti’s Miles character talks about in the movie Sideways. We are all, to one extent or another, pinot grapes in a cabernet world. He says:
Um, it’s a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It’s uh, it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s, you know, it’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet.