Many artists create their best pieces from the pyre of suffering. Beethoven went deaf at 45; Georgia O'Keeffe struggled with depression. Author David Foster Wallace struggled with depression and addiction. Artists work through their pain, around it, with it, from it. To make the most of what we’ve endured, we might consider the advice of author Dorothy Sayers in her essay “Why Work?”, and allow our experience to “serve the work”.
Born in Oxford, England, Sayers is best known for her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, but in all endeavors Sayers believed that while many feel that work, in whatever form, ought to serve the community, there is a “catch” in this line of thinking. Her reasoning as a person of faith was that there is a “paradox about working to serve the community”, and there are three reasons why this is true. First, a person can’t “do good work if you take your mind off the work to see how the community is taking it.” Second, “the moment you think of serving other people, you begin to have a notion that other people owe you something for your pains; you begin to think that you have a claim on the community.” Third, if you aim to serve the community, “you will probably end by merely fulfilling a public demand—and you may not even do that.”
In her book The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers, Betsy Lerner made a similar observation about checking the community pulse on what to write. “People who try to figure out what’s hot and re-create it are as close to delusional as you can get. Once a trend is actually identified it is usually too late; your work will be regarded as opportunistic, as jumping on the bandwagon…” While some writers may be altruistic enough not to consider the potential return on their investment before they start writing, once a thing is written and received, or not—for the community is not awaiting with baited breath the words of the writer’s imagination—that is the moment when the writer realizes just how much of what he or she has written was not for the work—meaning the integrity of the project—but for the sake of a response. Even where there is a legitimate public demand for treatment of a particular topic, where is the artistry in putting the cart before the horse?
So what about us? Should we write of our painful experiences? If so, how? Moreover, why? If we do decide to explore a difficult experience, should there be parameters or guidelines to enable our writing to benefit us and others without bringing harm?
I know a writer with a chronic health condition who eventually decided to record the experience via an essay on a national website. What made this person write of the condition and share it that way? First, in researching the topic, the writer learned of alternative medicine options whose treatments were helpful. This made the writer think, if these helped me, they could help others. Since the information wasn’t yet mainstream, efforts to surface it did help others. Just as important, maybe more so, by that time the writer was talking about the topic with friends and family. In other words, the time was right, not just for the topic but for the writer.
I also know a writer who wrote about sexual assault and found that writing about the incident helped her and others. So what made her take this big step? First, she was inspired by the bravery of one of her students to write of a similar instance. Second, she tested the story on friends before sharing it widely. Surprised at how many people echoed her experience and encouraged her, she gained confidence that sharing it widely could help still more people: those who have endured sexual assault and close to them. In this example, the steps she took were both incremental and affirming.
These two examples, both about writing nonfiction, share several commonalities:
- The writer wrote not only for personal gain but also for others.
- The writer selected a trustworthy medium related to the topic.
- The writer wrote the story when the time was right, and first put the writing aside to consider what to do with it before sharing it.
- The writer had a trusted friend, someone with firsthand experience, read the work before the piece was sent and shared.
- The writer tested the experience on a smaller local audience before going global. Once on the web, it’s forever, or at least it feels that way.
If you don’t want to write about a painful experience directly as nonfiction, you might consider fictionalizing it. One way to do this is to consider the emotional truth of what happened. In other words, what was the lesson learned, and how might it become the theme of a poem, flash fiction, a short story or a novel? If you write fiction and have been through a difficult experience, and the further one goes along in life, the more one goes through, you might allow your experience to inform, not dictate, the work or its direction. The points above regarding nonfiction writing also apply to fiction.
There’s no rule that says a writer has to write about a painful experience and share it with others. We can write about what happened and decide not to share it. Either way, what we write, how we write it and who we are because of what we’ve been through can be enhanced by what we’ve experienced.