Should Writers be Suffering More?

Flaubert didn’t have to work for a living. Nor did Proust. Nor did Tolstoy.

Whereas Dostoevsky struggled. The Czarist government put him in front of a firing squad in Siberia at one point, and pretended they were going to execute him — no wonder the guy got a bit intense sometimes. Dostoevsky always had bills to pay, and as George Steiner points out in Tolstoy or Doestoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism, this economic gulf between the two writers makes it understandable that Dostoevsky’s prose is less polished than Tolstoy’s — he simply didn’t have the time to write as many drafts — although by way of compensation, depending on your taste, Doestoevsky can take us further into the darker reaches of the human mind. Solzhenitsyn had it even worse — the gulag, exile to Vermont (well maybe that part doesn’t sound so bad), then the final indignity of having his TV show in Russia cancelled because the ratings weren’t high enough.

What would be your ideal balance? A traumatic childhood that will inspire you for the rest of your life and make you rich, like Dickens? Having an office job and drawing perverse inspiration from it for your writing, like Kafka? Turning your back on privilege and seeking out the gritty and the nitty-gritty, like Orwell? Would you prefer to experience wretched suffering in moderation or in immoderation? Your answers on a postcard please.
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  • Anonymous

    Somebody said great art is born not of suffering but of the memory of suffering.

  • The other Olga

    whatever it takes to kill your (literary) fathers and defamiliarize the language 😉

  • Lauren Baratz-Logsted

    Whatever I’m doing now: suffering enough, enjoying enough.

  • Matt Borondy

    “A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.” -Eudora Welty

    “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” -Leonard Cohen

    “Life is suffering.” -Buddha

  • Michael

    There was a hilarious article I read once about this topic; I believe it originally appeared in The Onion. They interviewed a pair of earnest parents as they described how they would encourage their newborn child to evolve into a world-class writer. “First, I will become an alcoholic,” said the father. “I will enter a downward spiral that lasts ten years. By the time our chile is five, we will be living in poverty. I will work hard to become distant and bitter.”

    Meanwhile the mother says “At the same time, I will practice being shrill and unforgiving. When our child is six, we will divorce, and enter into a bitter custody battle…”

    It goes on from there. The assumption being that it is impossible to become an effective writer if one’s life is too comfortable.

    I know from my experience in various creative-writing classes that most people, in their initial forays into the art of writing, craft thinly-disguised versions of their own lives. They use writing as a way to wrestle with their own personal demons. In that case, one would think that the more demons one had to grapple with, the more potential stories one would have to tell. But I think that a true writer can look beyond their own personal traumas for material. Stories spring to mind of their own accord, like Venus from the sea-foam. While colored by the authors’ own experience, these stories tend to become repetitive. The true mark of genius is to achieve inspiration without anticipating the hope of emotional relief.