We’ve all heard of great writers who suffered tough childhoods. Charles Dickens, James Joyce, Virginia Wolfe, James Baldwin, Jeannette Walls, just to name a few. The challenges may have equipped them with unusual insight, or pushed them deeper into their imaginations, or taught them outsized observational skills as part of the need to survive. I can intuitively understand why their difficult experiences might have enhanced their writing to the benefit of the rest of us. But what intrigues me is why people with damage or heartbreak might be driven to write.
One reason might be the desire to live in another world for a while, with a different mind and a different life. In this way, writing can be a solace to both writers and readers. When I had to get through major surgery in college, I remember rereading my old favorite, The Lord of the Rings. I wanted to lose myself in characters whom I already knew and loved. In other times of need, I’ve turned to literary fiction for its depth, fantasy for its heroism, and poetry and short stories for their insight, such as those collected by my friend Ellen Wade Beals in Solace in So Many Words.
But nothing is more absorbing than creating those other lives yourself. I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of sympathetic imagination – the need to carry your characters’ attitudes and feelings inside yourself and write from their perspective, reflecting your characters’ pasts, not your own. In the New Yorker profile on Jennifer Egan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, she says that when her brother died, “it was a solace to be able to disappear into her fictional world and momentarily distance herself from actual life.” Not only can that move into fiction give you a respite, it can remind you that there is more than one way to process trauma, more than one way to live with scars.
The chance to craft a different ending could be another reason. That doesn’t have to mean something akin to a classic storybook ending: “and they lived happily ever after.” No one, except maybe Cormac McCarthy, ends a novel with “and eventually everyone died.” We arc our stories so that loss and danger are something that our protagonists survive and learn from. Writing gives us hope because, no matter what we throw at our characters, we can imagine a path to the other side.
Beyond that, I believe the act of writing itself is a comfort. My love of storytelling began when I was five and used to roam the block while my mother and sisters napped, feeling alone but not wanting to join them, making up sad little stories that I’d tell to myself. My mind would inevitably shift in focus from the feeling of sadness to the beauty of the sad little words – which of course meant I was no longer sad. There’s an alchemy in writing, a harnessing of inner resources. Once the effort to capture something in words takes precedence, it refocuses the mind, inspires the imagination, and enlists the eye and ear. An inherently solitary act that somehow makes us feel less alone and more connected – as if creating words to be read invites the reader inside at the act of creation. Turning dross to gold.