By Drew Hayden Taylor
Originally published in July 2010
I was flipping through the television the other day and came upon an interview with the award-winning author Joseph Boyden. His two novels, Three Day Road and Through Black Spurce, have had the success most of us writers can only imagine.
Not bad for a self-described Metis boy now living in New Orleans. I’m a self-described status Ojibway now living on the Curve Lake First Nations. I think I need to get a better agent.
Be that as it may, it was late in the interview when the host asked a particular question that caught my attention.
“Do you think writers need to suffer in order to write?” he inquired. Admittedly, I don’t remember Joseph’s answer because I was stunned at what I considered the stupidity of the question. “Do writers need to suffer in order to write?” That inquiry just floored me. I still grind my teeth at the thought of that question.
Why? Because it’s silly. Sure, we are all familiar with the romantic stereotype of artists suffering for their art; the image of the lonely artist slowly starving to death in a rundown Paris flophouse as he or she struggles to paint. Or the Charles Bukowsky legend, living on skid row, drawing inspiration for his poetry from wallowing in alcohol and urban decay.
I always found that route to creativity a little problematic. Call me a radical, but being well showered and well fed can be just as conducive to art as anything else. Maybe more so. I find I have trouble focusing when I’m on death row.
I have always believed, and lectured, to the fact that if you want to be a good writer, one of the things you have to have done is lead an interesting life. If not interesting, per se, at least an event-fueled life. Do things. Have a full life. Rack up some frequent flier miles or frequent events miles. Sometimes that definitely does include suffering.
Yes, suffering provides loads of experience and a certain understanding necessary to certain kinds of writing. But so does surfing the other end of the spectrum. Travelling the world with your kids can produce just as many interesting books. Hemingway didn’t exactly suffer like the romantic ideal. In fact, he probably thought that was for wimps. Instead, he led an interesting life. Stephen King or Kurt Vonnegut didn’t exactly start out begging on street corners, or cutting off their ears. They had family and kids to support.
It’s like asking if all pilots need to crash in order to be a good pilot. Hopefully not but I’m sure the experience provides a unique perspective. Again, there’s that word “experience.” But it can also come from performing an excellent landing every time. Do accountants need to gamble in order to have a better understanding of the ebb and flow of finance and chance? Maybe. But not necessary. But you get the point.
I know I’ve suffered in my own way. Granted I’m not dying of consumption or learning to walk after a tragic car accident, but last year I had to deal with the death of my mother. I’m the only child of a single parent. You do the math. In the larger context, I’ve had broken hearts, weathered unkind public criticisms, and more recently, I’ve marked the passing of the television show LOST. I have yet to find a country song that properly reflects that particular pain.
Basically put, everybody suffers, or more precisely, to quote the band R.E.M., “Everybody hurts.” It’s not a country song but we still get the point. And to tell you the truth, I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who has never suffered.
Sure some people may suffer more than others, whatever may be described as ‘suffering,’ but then again, some people eat more than others, play tennis more than others, laugh more than others, cry more than others too. It’s all relative.
And obviously, as Native people we are no strangers to the art of suffering. Five hundred years of colonization tends to do that to a race. But hopefully you do not have to spend 10 years in a residential school, or several months in a rehab centre in order to be recognized as a decent author.
Writers don’t have to suffer to write, anymore than we have to sneeze. We already do, same as convenience store clerks, waitresses, and people who sell discount cigarettes. For some reason, people just expect us to.
With that being said, I don’t think I could imagine a world without suffering or pain. Geez, think of all the unemployed country singers that would result in. Now that would be a tragedy.