16 November 2006

Stability and Writing

As Katherine points out, the conversations we have during downtimes at the writing center are interesting, to say the least. Today, for instance, two of my coworkers and I covered in a single conversation topics ranging from psychologists (necessary, helpful, or evil?), the relationship of guilt and stress to achievement, the role of mothers and the problems therein, and whether insanity/instability is a necessary part of being a brilliant writer.

It's on this last point that I'm still sorting out my thoughts. The consensus seemed to be that you can be a good writer and a normal person, but most of the best writers will be tragically unstable and unhappy. Now, I acknowledge there's a definite correlation between an unhappy personal life and brilliant writing--look up the biography of the majority of canonical writers and you'll find a host of cruel families, unhappy love lives, suicidal tendencies, and anything else you'd care to imagine.

Yet I can't bring myself to believe there's necessarily a connection between the two. As anyone with a basic knowledge of statistics will note, a correlation between two variables says nothing about which causes which, or if a causal relationship even exists. The most current example would be the hilarious campaign revolving around the correlation between reduced amounts of piracy and increases in global temperatures. Clearly, it makes no logical sense to say one brings about the other, though the correlation is evident. If there’s any connection at all, they're probably both influenced by some hidden variable, say technological advances. So the fact that many great writers have been unstable is, at best, only anecdotal evidence of some connection between the two factors. (Granted, in the English department, anecdotal evidence is pretty much what we do. But indulge the science portion of my brain for a moment.)

Continuing the statistical analogy, I wonder if the relationship between brilliant writers and tortured writers comes by means of a hidden variable, namely, writers are always better when they have something essential to write about. No matter how eloquent your prose, if your topics are shallow or trivial, it's simply not going to become "great." Interesting and amusing, certainly, but great writing must inherently deal with the great matters of human existence. And a tortured personal life does certainly bring about a wealth of vital topics. All human beings, at one point or another, doubt their sanity, deal with failed relationships, and distrust the fairness of the universe, so these topics make the level of greatness more easily accessible. However, insanity or instability is by no means the only method of arriving at vitally important material. Religious devotion, scholarly study, and everyday observation can also bring about the consideration of humanity in all its forms.

In fact, writing driven by instability seems to me to be limiting rather than enabling. Writers motivated by personal angst are stuck within a realm of self, continually confronting the same issues of self-concept and depression in their writing, never able to move on to something of greater scope. Granted, there is infinity to explore within ourselves, but infinity also exists outside ourselves. Ought we to neglect one for the other? Introspection certainly has its place, but it’s not the only thing to write about. But I guess that’s my personal bias--I prefer considering the broad human condition rather than the local.

Another factor is the confusion of the esoteric with the brilliant. Just because something is hard to understand does not make it good writing. It's (relatively) easy to write something so esoteric that it seems profound because no one else can get it. It's a much more difficult and worthwhile task to write something so intensely clear and powerful that everyone knows exactly what you mean from the second they read it. And not something on low level, either. You must take an abstract, difficult concept and make it so obvious, clear, and simple without letting your audience know. (See, of course, CS Lewis.) In my opinion, this was the original function of poetry, and by extension literature: not to be obtuse and mysterious, but to be so dazzlingly clear as to appear prototypical. This is one problem I have in my own writing. It would be so easy to write something mysterious--pregant with general feeling but lacking a specific message. But I'd rather spend the time to make my meaning painfully specific and clear, clear enough to unite the minds of the writer and the reader for one moment. (I know this is a large enough heresy against the English department that it might take another post to fully justify, but work with me.)

But the most pressing reason that I reject this idea is that I simply don't believe that the goals of being a brilliant writer and a happy, fulfilled individual should be mutually exclusive. For me, creating art is a part of the gospel, one method of our pursuit of divine and eternal knowledge, creation on a small scale. I can’t believe that anything as good, true, and healthy as art could be incompatible with joy and happiness. It feels unnatural and untrue.

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