If you are a writer, there are many reasons for you to suffer. Your writing might not go as expected, you might not be able to put as much time as you want into your writing, you discover that the story you are working on does not go in the direction you expected, or, you do not get the reaction you have hoped for, you might even get rejected, or a thousand other reasons.
In previous posts and in many that are still to come I suggest strategies and tools that help you with the process of writing and of working on your material.
Today however I want to address the issue of suffering.
Steven Pressfield is a scriptwriter and novelist with a blog you should check out:
He also has an Instagram page where he occasionally posts videos in which he proposes books to read. In one of his last videos (https://www.instagram.com/p/CbGbf9dAdJN/) he talks about his mentor, Pau Rink. Steven says:
When I was trying to finish my first novel I rented a little house in Northern California. I met a friend there who became a real mentor to me – Paul Rink. One day over a cup of coffee, I asked Paul how someone could endure unimaginable suffering and still end up doing great. Paul set his coffee down on the Formica table, looked me in the eye, and said something I’ll never forget.
“Suffering has never hurt any writer that I know of.”
Now the first thing to say here is very important: The kind of suffering Steven, Paul and I are talking about is suffering with a well definable reason like those mentioned above. In short, we talk about suffering where the source of such suffering is identifiable.
What we are not talking about is someone suffering without apparent reason, sudden mood changes, or if someone has the feeling, dark clouds are hanging over their head and just don’t go away. In these cases one might have a mental condition like depression and should seek professional help.
With this out of the way, let’s talk about suffering. My take on it is that suffering comes exactly from the same place where happiness, bliss, love, and empathy come from. The place is commonly known as the soul. So, if you suffer it is proof that your inner life is intact. Suffering, in other words, is a feeling, and it is part of our emotional self. Feelings, positive and negative, often have a hard time coming to the surface. They are not subject to a person’s will, so sometimes feelings will find their way out that you did not expect. And that is ok.
Second, suffering, how human beings deal with it, what we are ready to go through to avoid it, and how we often do not see the way out of it even if it is directly in front of us are the ingredients of the greatest of all stories.
There is a wonderful video on Youtube in which the great Kurt Vonneggut explains how few basic story models there are. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOGru_4z1Vc)
The first thing he does when explaining the different shapes of stories is to draw an x and an y axis on a board. He calls the x-axis the “G-I” axis because it goes from “G” like good fortune on the top, down to “I” for “ill fortune, terrible disease, poverty” on the lower end of the axis.
In all the story shapes, Vonnegut explains, suffering plays a decisive role. In “Man in a Hole” the shape of the curve looks like a hole; “a man gets into trouble and then gets out of trouble,” says Kurt Vonnegut, and that people never get tired of it. Another shape is “Boy meets Girl,” and here the curve starts in the middle of the “G-I” axis, “a day just like any other day,” Vonnegut says. The curve then rises dramatically, of course that is when “boy meets girl” but it could as well be Andy (the wonderful Ann Hathaway) on the day when she learns that she landed an internship with Runway magazine in “The Devil wears Prada.” From here the curve precipitates, crosses the middle line and ends at “I – ill fortune, terrible disease, poverty” which is of course when Andy realizes she has sold her soul to the devilish Miranda Priestly (the divine Meryl Streep).
Happiness is fragile and the course of destiny always gravitates downwards. If not stopped (and who are we to think that we can stop destiny?) the trajectory crosses the middle line and plummets towards the bottom. But, the good news for the characters in most stories is, misery and ill fortune are also not stable conditions. Life is movement and really interesting characters never stand still, never settle for anything. If they fight, struggle and suffer enough they will be able to bend the curve and make it point upwards again.
Life is very different from stories, fortunately or unfortunately so. Stories might not even be parables of life but just dreams and wishes that we tell each other (or ourselves) to alleviate the suffering for some time. But one takeaway from stories that is undeniable is: nothing lasts forever. That holds true for our happiest, healthiest, blissful periods, but it also applies to the states of misery and despair.
If you suffer because of your work, keep at it, keep going and you will find that the reason for suffering slowly moves into the back view mirror. Once you have had enough of those ups and down you might also consider to keep lingering around that middle line as long as you possibly can. It is the best place to be for a writer, as it gives you the freedom to write about the states of bliss and despair instead of living through them in person.
Third and last, true suffering is something entirely different from what a writer goes through in the process of writing. True suffering, and I am talking here tragedy like the loss of loved ones, grave and terminal illnesses, being the victim of violence or injustice, becoming the witness of atrocities, true suffering is speechless, its eyes are dead and expressionless, it is isolating, it has a chilling effect on anybody who attempts to come close. True suffering has no time and it has no place, it is ubiquitous in the life of the suffering person.True suffering is self sufficient, and it follows its own laws. Some of these laws are that only time helps, that the process of healing is not linear (it will feel worse, weeks or months or years after the event that caused it), that it will reveal its magnitude and power in moments where the suffering person is at their weakest, and that a person can only “win” against it by declaring defeat. If someone is not strong enough to do so, the suffering will stay with that person forever and take over their lives.
As a writer you should be aware that suffering because you are unhappy with your results is something very different from true suffering. You should not be afraid of suffering, instead you should welcome it. If you suffer, it reminds you that you are on a trajectory, just as you characters are (or should be), it is an assurance that your inner life is intact and that you can expect many wonderful emotions and moments coming from the very same source that generates the suffering. Your suffering also brings you a little closer to those fellow human beings who truly suffer, in silence and imprisoned in their pain and despair.
Take a moment to think of them and to be thankful for the fact that nothing in life lasts