Writers Are Cruel, so Have Pity

If your reading has progressed past Dr. Suess, you’ve almost certainly had one of those “You Bastard!” moments. That’s when the author hits you with something both surprising and cruel. That sidekick you loved? Oops, he’s dead. That knight in shining armor? It turns out he’s the bad guy. And that character you identify with so closely? Yeah… she’s going into the meat grinder.

While it would be fun to toss it off with the glib observation that we’re a vicious breed, the truth is better. Writers are cruel for a good reason.

By putting characters through the crucible of their misfortune, the reader gets put through it as well. We get the full emotional ride, but we come out the other side with no scars. Well, maybe a few scars. I’m still kind of shaken by some of the deaths at the end of Harry Potter, but I guess that’s part of it too. Voldemort didn’t kill any of my friends and family, and yet I got to taste that sense of terrible loss, and while I prefer a joyful life, I know it is one tempered by grief. Maybe it’s better to have some idea what I’m up against in fiction before I’m facing it for real.

But it’s not enough for a writer to drop in pain and loss by recipe. To work, it’s got to be real. At least, that’s been my experience, and I’ve heard it from others as well. “Writing is easy,” they say, “just pull out the paper and open a vein.”

I think that’s why some of the best advice for young writers is to go out and live some life first. Every heartache, every mistake, every open wound… it’s all grist for the mill. I have suffered. I have seen suffering. And, I confess, I have sometimes caused suffering.

Writing about it makes for poor therapy, since you kind of have to wallow in it at times. Rather, it’s best to have already dealt with it before doing the writing. That way you can keep it close enough to make it real but far enough away to keep it from consuming you. Of course, my life has been far from Schindler’s List or The Mission, but it has had its cathartic moments. Seven years after my father’s death, I’m finally tapping into that well. I don’t know how long it will be before I can write about my sons. Maybe never.

So I think about that when some author pulls the rug out from under me with the demon ripping apart that innocent five-year-old child. I want to hate him for being so cruel, but I also realize that at some level this was real to him. No, it wasn’t actually a demon, and chances are the kid wasn’t actually eaten alive, screaming as he went, but somewhere in that author’s life, whether it was him or someone he knows, there was very likely some tragic death of a child. If he hadn’t had any real emotion to tap into, it wouldn’t have had the power to affect me so much.

So, as much as I call him a bastard, I kind of have to feel sorry for him, because whatever real events inspired that grief on the page, I imagine that living it hurt a hell of a lot more than simply reading it. So, who is more cruel, the author, or the fate that put so much grist in the mill?

And people wonder why so many great writers suffer from depression and alcoholism.