Friday, September 21, 2012

Who Says You Have to Suffer for Art?

"You'll never write books; you've had too good a life."

My mom said that to me back in high school, echoing what many people believe about writers and other artistic types. Folks think that, in order to be creative, you must be a scarred and tortured soul.

I thought about Mom several months ago, when Kristin Stewart told Elle Magazine, "I feel boring. I feel like, Why is everything so easy for me? I can’t wait for something crazy to ... happen to me. Just life. I want someone to f*** me over!” The Twilight star has since experienced arguably more than her fair share of scarring torture, so I guess we'll see whether it makes her a better actress.

And then this illustration popped up in my Facebook feed a week or so ago. (I'm keeping it small so you'll click on the link and check it out on the artist's site.) It was done by Grant Snider (who, coincidentally, got his start at the University of Kansas student newspaper, just like me!). And it accompanied a review of John Sutherland's "Lives of the Novelists." Sutherland's book details how real-life experience inspired and fed the fiction of some of the world's most famous authors.

Looking at the illustration, I found five squares that pertained to me: Miserable Job (not now, years ago) that led to a Moment of Self-Discovery, Loyal Pet, Neglected Spouse, and Years of Boring Hard Work.

Sounds... boring, right? No Childhood Trauma, no Episode of Debauchery (OK, I've had a few moments I wouldn't want on YouTube, but in all I'm pretty tame), and no Personal Demons, unless you count the usual insecurities of a woman my age.

If you feel boring, too, never fear. Mom was right that I've had a good life, and for that I thank her, my Dad, good genes and good luck. But overall, she was dead wrong. I'm not here to dispute that powerful things are created by people who've lived difficult lives. Nor am I arguing against the obvious: that great pain can inform great art. I'm just saying awful childhoods are not necessarily prerequisites for success in writing.

Now, I'm not putting myself on the level of, nor am I going to even try to boast about being, a great or highly successful novelist. I am a novelist, however--one with a book from a Big 5 publisher, and I've managed to make my living as a writer in marketing and journalism. Occasionally I hear aspiring authors lament, like Kristin Stewart, that they feel they don't have anything to write about because they haven't struggled enough.

But drama--the kind that sustains a novel--doesn't have to come in the form of an addiction, illness, natural disaster or predator. Sometimes it's the smaller conflicts, the kind nearly everybody has experienced, that open the door to a great story. 

In my experience, the true prerequisites for success are an active imagination, the ability to put oneself in others' shoes and see the world from different perspectives, plus a willingness to work your rear end off. Obviously there are brilliant people who live life on the edge, but the majority of authors I know are fairly steady folks. I imagine it would be tough having the energy and focus needed to complete a novel if one were dealing with too many personal demons. And I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want to experience the kind of careful-what-you-wish-for drama poor Ms. Stewart has endured lately!