Monday, July 23, 2007

Corner of Lonely and Heartbreak


What if I suggested that the first stage of creativity is unhappiness?

"Yeah, well, welcome to Monday," you might retort. "Considering how unhappy I am about going back to work today, I must be going to have one hell of a creative week."

Could be, could be. . .but it all depends. . .

I'm going to start out this week by telling you one version of a story I have heard told in a lot of different forms.

Let's say there's a woman. She gets pregnant. She's 34, been trying to conceive for a while, so this is a very welcome pregnancy. At the fifth month, she miscarries. Over Christmas. Afterwards, people ask her, "How are you?" "I'm fine," she says. "Fine," she insists. She goes skiing three weeks later and cries all the way down the mountain. "It's only because I'm out of shape," she says. "Really, though, I'm fine."

She seems to be fine. For a year, she gets along. . .fine.

The next Christmas rolls around. One day she's shopping and suddenly she feels an overwhelming urge to sit on the curb of the busy street and weep. She has no idea where this profound feeling of loss and sorrow has come from--until she realizes it is a year since the miscarriage, and suddenly she admits to herself, after a whole year of denial, that she is not so "fine."

She finally lets herself grieve. A need to express that grief in words arises. She begins writing poetry. It's not bad stuff. Some of it gets published. A couple of her poems win prizes. And then suddenly she wants to write short stories. They're not great, but they're not bad, either. And then she wants to write novels. For the next two years, creativity pours out of her in a joyous stream, tempered only by the rejections she receives for her early work. In the spring of the third year after the miscarriage, two things happen: she gets pregnant again, and a New York publisher buys her book.

And then, four years. . .TO THE DAY. . .after she left the hospital following the miscarriage, she walks out of the same hospital with her newborn son. While she was in the hospital this time, her first published novel went on sale at bookstores all over the country.

It all started with unhappiness, or rather with her full admission of her unhappiness, and when I say "admission," I mean both the full confession and the full feeling of it. When that dam broke, many kinds of creativity surged through.

You've probably guessed that woman was me. But I'm only one small version of a many-times told tale of unhappiness turning into creativity. In the book about the emotional journey of writing that I wrote with psychologist Lynn Lott, Unhappiness was the first of our 7 Steps on the Writer's Path. This week I feel like exp0ring this subject, and a Monday is the obvious place to start.

I wish you a most, awful, terrible, unhappy Monday, if that's what it takes to get your creative fires glowing.


Nancy P said...

It's raining. I am not unhappy about it. :)

GreenMinute said...

This is a tough one, Nancy. Because I am unsure that I agree, although it's a most viable idea.

Lonely might be more key than sadness? Alone.

A creative response to grieving might also have been a destructive response to grieving? You may have turned to drinking instead of poetry, migratory sex instead of short stories, right-wing political ranting on radio talkshows instead of a novel.

Surely, though, you have identified a catalyst for you to have started writing. But what made you a writer to begin with?
What made you choose a creative outlet at a time of disconsolate desperation... when another may have committed suicide at Christmas or shot up a shopping mall... or converted to Greek Othodoxy?

Sadness may be a catalyst in many artistic endeavors. But so might anger. Or perhaps mere frustration.

I would also point out that your individual sadness, in this case loss, is indicative of isolation and loneliness. Aloneness, if you will allow me to use that word instead.

I might also suggest that you were already a writer many years before your began writing, many years before you found or were clobbered by your catalyst.

I would think you became a writer at about age 10 or 11, around the same time that eventual serial killers start torturing small animals they find in their neighborhood, and bridge engineers design their first birdhouse, and veterinarians rescue their first baby bird.

GreenMinute said...

I also might believe that your great great gandmother wrote beautiful letters to her husband, who was lost at sea on a whaling barkentine. And you were born with that woman inside you.

Catharine said...

Oh and computer programmers start playing with algorithms?

Nancy P said...

Hey, green! I love your observations, but I'm not going to respond to them yet. I may not say much today, and just let the comments roll. I want to think about them, and maybe work them into what I say about all this as the week rolls by.

Besides, I'm unhappy enough about my work that it may force me to write today. :)

GreenMinute said...

LOL, Catharine.

Anonymous said...

Good morning! Both viewpoints make me think. I don't disagree with either of you. I wonder what other catalysts have prodded people to take that first tentative step?

I agree that we're born writers, as others are born serial killers. I spent most of my life dreaming of being a "real" author as I wrote bits and pieces - for myself, for jobs, for others.

Days became weeks became months became years.

Finally, at 45 I decided if I was going to be a novelist, I had to write novels (duh). So I started. And once I opened the floodgates, I couldn't stop. When I'm not writing, I'm miserable, wandering through my days mad at myself and the world in general.

It's a lonely calling. But the rewards are SO worth it. And we have places like this to occasionally emerge from our holes and touch others.

Thanks for waking up my brain cells this morning, folks. I wish it was raining here!

GreenMinute said...

Finally, at 45 I decided if I was going to be a novelist...

A terrific choice, Beth!

Family Man said...

Hi everyone.

I think any emotion can make a writer, but to me it's the strongest emotions we feel that brings forth the need to write or the intensity of that writing. Sadness and fear has produced some great writing, but great joy has also.

Pretty profound for a guy that just starting writing a little blog a year and a half ago, huh. :~)

GreenMinute said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kelly McCullough said...

Interesting thesis. Doesn't follow my own path to writing at all, but I can see how it's one way to start down the path.
In my own case, I met a wonderful woman with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life (going on 18 years together now). I'd been in theater, but that's not really compatible with having a life so I was looking for a new artistic outlet. Shortly after she moved in with me, I got a computer. I had time and artistic drive and I was as happy as I'd ever been in my life, so I wrote a book. It didn't sell, but that didn't deter me and I wrote two more.

They didn't sell either, so, more than a little bit bummed, I took a break from novels for short stories. I learned a lot and started selling shorts. My confidence and happiness returned and I wrote WebMage which went on to be released by Penguin's Ace division.

But the sales process took six years and shortly before it sold I was again pretty bummed and unhappy. I was at the lowest production ebb of my writing life. Then the book sold and I started to come out of the down period and, since I was happy, to write a lot again. I've now written four novels in 24 months, including the best work of my life.

I write when I'm unhappy too, but I write better and much faster when I'm happy.

GreenMinute said...

Family man, yes, great joy is a good one! Look at all those hymns! Joy, joy, joy, joy.. down in my heart...

And, golly, you just brought up the whole circle of emotions with that one. You know, you're joy is only as great as your sorrow. And vice versa.

Lost & Found. I mean, if loss is the heart of sorrow, found is the hreat of joy. Can't have one without the other.

A son or a husband can't return from war if he never leaves for war. Food doesn't relieve hunger if you aren't hungry. And writing doesn't relieve aloneness if you aren't alone to begin with.

The full moon only matters because the dark of the moon exists.

GreenMinute said...

I've now written four novels in 24 months, including the best work of my life.

Wow! Zowie! Ka-Boom, Ka-Boom! K.M., who are you writing to when you write?

GreenMinute said...

Aw, dang. I gotta go kill somebody...

I have a car full of characters nobody cares about until I make one of them dead.


Kelly McCullough said...

Interesting question GM.

I guess that first and foremost I'm trying to write stories I'd love to read, stuff that makes me laugh or cry or growl. Next and in almost the same place in my emotional hierarchy for writing I telling a story to my wife--she's always my first reader, looking at stuff in the roughest of drafts and comparing it to the stories I'm telling her about the book and letting me know if I'm on the right track.

After that comes everybody else-largely represented by my writers group who holds my feet to the fire if I become incoherent or skip details. For me that's a very interactive process, a bit like putting on a play actually.

Kelly McCullough said...

I think FM's point on deep emotion is an excellent one (waves at FM). Some of my best short writing ever was political essays on Hurricane Katrina and I was absolutely furious while I was writing.

Nancy P said...

Poking my head in long enough to say I think "deep emotion" is--or can be?--a key, too.

boran2 said...

Although I've had my share of life's difficulties, my art has flowed rather freely, at a somewhat consistent rate. Lean times or fat ones, it just comes. (Or perhaps I'm simply not aware of the impact of my experiences on my paintings.)

Perhaps it's different for writers.

Jen said...

Nancy, I'm so sorry for your loss, and so delighted by your self-discovery. Great story.

Nancy P said...