The idea of the suffering artist is embedded in our culture and literature. Everywhere you turn there is the notion the creative person goes through a process of pain and agony to put what they are doing, be it painting, poetry or music out there for the world. In some cases suffering is essential in the discipline, anyone beginning to play guitar knows the pain of practice. Yet I think when people talk of the suffering artist, I think they are meaning some kind of psychic suffering that must happen to enable creation.
I went to a workshop where we talked about the need to balance anxiety and creativity. That we can’t create unless we embrace the anxiety. There is some truth to it for me, but one of our people shared that she can’t write unless she is happy and free of care. She goes through a process to shed the world in order to write. She proves that we have to be careful with generalizations. The pain I experience on a daily basis does nothing for my art but get in the way. Like my companion at that workshop I need to shed any focus on pain in order to write.
Still even if writing doesn’t cause us pain, at some point we need to write about pain. How do we do that in an authentic way if we have never experienced agony of body or spirit? I don’t know the answer to that question. I also don’t know many people old enough to be serious writers who have never felt an earache or toothache. We, as writers, need to extrapolate that pain into our characters, because whether or not we need to suffer for our art, it is essential that our characters suffer.
There are no great books in which the characters coast through their days with nothing to get in the way of their desires. If there were such books, few people would read them. Conflict is the heart of the story. The characters have to deal with one thing after another that keeps them from the thing they desire most. In a great book even that thing is a lie and cheat and by the end they must turn away to find something worthy of them.
So writing isn’t created by pain, but rather is about pain. I think the other disciplines are similar. Pain is secondary to the passion to create. The guitar player doesn’t focus on the aching fingers, but the joy of losing herself in the music. Painters seek to put themselves onto the canvass, but when they paint, they are only conscious of the process of painting. Art is not about suffering, but about life. That there is pain in life is unarguable, but we put that into our art to transform it and transcend it – as in the end our characters must.
The following story is a combination of one person’s setting and another person’s character. I blended them into this story. It starts abruptly since it picks up on the other authors stories. You can read the setting here, and the character sketch here. Please take the time to read them, not just because the story will make more sense, but because they are worth reading in their own right.
The glacier didn’t stay thawed long.
The woman’s cheery “Lovely day. Makes one glad to be alive, doesn’t it?” only reminded me that I had failed to keep that old man alive. He couldn’t enjoy this life. Here I was shovelling snow and complaining and he couldn’t do that. Maybe if I was faster, if I had seen him earlier in the day? I shook the thoughts out of my head. It was a waste of energy. I started counting my blessings. I had this new home to share with my new wife and soon a baby. She loved me and even tried to understand this greyness that descended on my mind when I wasn’t paying attention.
I couldn’t blame the woman. She didn’t know that being alive was the source of my grief. My life was my failure.
I shovelled snow and counted blessings until I could go into the house and smile at the woman who was sure I loved her. I patted her growing belly and made all the right noises as inside I danced on the edge of despair. I held her all night and held the wall of blessing up between me and the darkness.
She didn’t know that I went for lunch to that same neighbourhood. I talked to the men and women on the street. I listened to their stories. They told me about Jeremiah. He was old, they said, and lucky that he found someone to care at the end. I heard stories about people who lain frozen for days before anyone missed them. It was strange, but the more we talked, the less they wanted my money. I knew from what I’d heard that there was nothing I could have done to save that old man. My problem was that I couldn’t find anyway to save myself.
I was shovelling snow again, and wondering if I wanted to spend the rest of my life shovelling snow. The old woman came by she still dressed in the old coat and scarf, but she’d added a pair of hockey socks over her pants.
“Great day to be alive!” she said.
“Why?” I said, before I could catch the words and keep their bitter taste within my mouth.
“I woke up this morning,” she said. She planted her feet firmly on the sidewalk. “I nearly didn’t one morning. My daughter just happened to call and next thing I was in the hospital with tubes coming out of everything.” She laughed. “I was never so surprised. Now every day is a new adventure. No matter the weather, it is a good to be alive.”
“What if your daughter hadn’t called? What if they couldn’t save you?” My words poured out. I almost put my hands over my mouth to stop them.
“If is a very powerful word for being so little,” the woman said. “If can create worlds or tear them apart. You have be careful with it.” She poked my chest with her finger. “Be glad to be alive, because it is so sad if you are not.” She started herself into motion again and I watched her walk down the street to her home.
I went inside and made supper for us. My wife was at a doctor’s appointment. I still had to shake my head in wonder. Four months ago a wild night was a few drinks then a TV show. If she’d caught the bus, we’d never have met, but we did and a ride became a supper to say thanks. Supper turned into two and then into breakfast. The baby was a shock, but also a delight. Suddenly I was a married father to be and all because of a missed bus.
Except it went back further. I was driving because of Jeremiah. I didn’t want to be without my car if someone needed me. Jeremiah was the reason I’d met Gracie. If it weren’t for the old man, I’d never have had a family. No, if it weren’t for Jeremiah dying. I scribbled a note and went out for a walk. Gracie had the car.
My feet took me to my old neighbourhood. It was getting dark. Even this late in the winter it was cold. I waved at a couple of my friends, but they were busy finding warm places to sleep. None of them wanted to die like Jeremiah, but all of them expected to. The store was still empty, so I sat in the doorway and wondered why life had to be so complicated. I couldn’t imagine life without Gracie, but I couldn’t imagine not wanting to save Jeremiah. Were the choices really so stark? An old man’s death to bring me such joy as I allowed myself to feel?
I felt someone sit down beside me.
“You sent me home,” Jeremiah said, “You cared enough to stay with me.”
“But you died,” I said.
“Of course I died,” Jeremiah said, “It was my time to die. You made sure I didn’t die alone.”
“Does that matter?”
“You tell me.”
I pushed the tears away from my face. How much of my grief was for me and how much for Jeremiah?
“I’m sorry I wasn’t enough to save that man,” I said to myself.
“I forgive you,” I said back.
A little while later my car pulled up.
“I thought I’d find you here,” Gracie said. She came and sat down beside me and snuggled up to me. “Have I ever told you how much I love you?” she said. “You care so much about people.”
“No one more than you,” I said and wrapped my arm around her shoulder. I started counting my blessings; I was alive to care about Gracie, I was alive to care about Jeremiah’s friends. I was alive.
“You know,” I said, “it really is a good day to be alive.”