Thursday, May 5, 2011

Suffering's Effect On Fiction

I hate the idea that a writer of fiction has to suffer in order to write well. Somehow, it seems that only comedians are exempt from this rule. It's something about needing a source of conflict, something about "write what you know," something about "show, don't tell," but the whole thing sounds miserable to me. Maybe this is why I haven't finished a short story. I haven't suffered enough.

I suppose pain is an integral part of the writing process. Suffer, come up with a story idea based on that suffering, write some of the story, suffer from writer's block, write some more, forget to save your work and lose most of it, write some more, submit it, get your rejection letters, start over. I don't know if that type of suffering is particularly useful for coming up with new stuff, though. Stories about writers are like films about filmmakers - everybody in the audience knows you had no better ideas than your own life, and your own life is clearly no more interesting than your job. I mean, at least use a metaphor. I train dragons and I'm having a terrible time getting them to listen to me, but once I get a dragon trained to perfection, I can sell him to a famous warrior and make a lot of money. Character growth can be found in the dilemma between training dragons for a love of dragons and training dragons to become as rich as Rowling - I mean as rich as the richest trainer of dragons.

So, the boring pseudo-suffering of a writer's life can be translated to something interesting and whimsical, but there will probably be some realism missing, some details left out. That's why it is useful to watch other people suffer. Talk to strangers. Read people's Facebook statuses. Take the interesting parts from what's wrong with everybody else's lives, and use it to flesh out your character.

This is also where showing instead of telling becomes important, and what makes it so difficult to accomplish if you have seldom had real issues. Suppose you have never felt lonely when you were not alone, and you want to explain it through your story. "She was lonely" won't cut it, I can tell you that now. But if you've never had such a thing happen, and you can't easily see such a thing by watching other people, how will you know what kind of a scene to craft to show the emotion instead? So perhaps some little bit of suffering is important after all, in order to know to place your character in a crowd of people who don't interact with him, or to leave her crying near somebody whose mind is elsewhere - don't you feel a little lonely yourself just envisioning these scenes?

But I have been crazy blessed throughout my life, and I have no desire to bring suffering upon me. What then shall I do? After people-watching, the easiest thing to do is augment one's own little experiences, and pretend they were much more than they actually were. Every bad day feels blown out of proportion while it's happening; you just have to capture that and make it seem real instead of histrionic. Make the causes bigger, but the emotions the same.

So, for all writers who are content or - dare I say it? - happy, be glad in knowing that there are loopholes to the Suffering Rule,

1 comment:

TheRevolutionary said...

Remember what I said in lectures? "Sometimes you have to step outside your comfort zone to grow." I didn't say you had to suffer but there is something to be said about writing what you experienced. It feels so much more genuine reading writing about things that the author has personal knowledge of rather than 3rd party retellings they haven't been through.

Now get out there and get uncomfortable!