Friday, April 10, 2009

A Vocation of Unhappiness?

I have a little quote here from an interview with the writer Georges Simenon (from The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. III) that I wanted to share, as I thought it would be interesting to see how different writers react to it. Here goes...

Simenon: Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. I don't think an artist can ever be happy.

Interviewer: Why?

Simenon: Because, first, I think that if a man has the urge to be an artist, it is because he needs to find himself. Every writer tries to find himself through his characters, through all his writing.

I thought this was very intriguing, though I don't necessarily agree with all of it. I see no reason why an artist can't be happy. Even if there is something necessarily unhappy about the pursuit of art (and I'm not sure there is), there is more to the artist than that pursuit alone. Art is merely one aspect of life, or perhaps an interpretation of it. But even for the happy artists... is writing a profession, and do you think we'd be better off without it? Intriguing. Is our art really that risky, really that damaging?

The part that really caught me, however, was that last bit, the idea that the artist is searching for himself in his art. A writer, in putting down words and stories, is seeking to find himself, to locate, perhaps, his own thoughts and sense of self. I think there's something to this, at least for some writers (me being one of them). I think I'm an explorative writer, both in seeking outward, in exploring something I don't know... and in exploring inward.

My most recent novel is about a kidnapping, a woman held for ransom in a makeshift cell. Part of this is outward exploration, a result of a (perhaps somewhat morbid) curiosity, a desire to know what others who have been imprisoned have gone through. And yet much of it is a very personal exploration, too, looking not only abstractly at imprisonment but personally, peeling apart my own thoughts, feelings and fears of imprisonment, my own claustrophobia, my own capacity for choice and action.

So, thoughts and reactions? What's up with writers and happiness? The artistic impulse? Self-revelation?


PurpleClover said...

I think we tend to put a little of ourselves in our characters. I know each of my characters contains a flaw that is from yours truly. OR they struggle with a flaw that I have dealt with the consequences of (maybe a family/friend's flaw).

SO I think it is cathartic to write about these characters because it makes us feel normal. Oddly enough if we all just threw our cards on the table, we'd realize we ARE normal...but then books would be boring. go fig.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post.

I think an artists can be happy but often aren't. For myself, at least, so much of my happiness is bound up in what is happening with my writing e.g. how close what I've got on the page is to my vision of what it ought to be, that unhappiness is common in my life. That said, though, my art is also a joy, even when I'm struggling with it.

I think its important to also consider that many artists do what they do because they were unhappy in the first place. It is a way to express themselves and, sometimes, to escape.

And PurpleClover, I definitely do that too.

Anonymous said...

Simenon lived his life quite unlike the lives he wrote about. If there was some longing in his writing, maybe it was a longing for having the kind of primal thirst or unscratchable itch that drove his characters to do something terrible. Most likely he had in the form of the compulsion to write about them.

The most cathartic thing about writing seems to come years after the fact. You look at this thing you created, and you go: that's mine, I did that. Even if all you remember of the doing of it was endless pacing and fuming.

Ms Kitty said...

Since writing, including plotting, character development and the act of typing itself makes me happy, I have to disagree.

Bookworm1605 said...

As in all things, there is certainly some truth in this, but it doesn't necessarily apply across the board. My mother paints and she finds solace in her work. My brothers are musicians and I think they are only truly happy when they play. I, on the other hand, am a writer and I can relate to this idea of the unhappy artist, although a disclaimer is necessary here: writing is a very solitary and individual pursuit.

I find the quote 'everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else.' very interesting. I think it all comes down to drive. Why do you write? Is it a hobby? A casual foray in self indulgence? Or is it a balm that soothes a wound? Or maybe a hit that feeds an addiction--a primal need. For me, I think it's closer to the last. I have this insatiable craving for Story that no book, no movie can seem to quench, so I create my own. The problem is that what ends up on paper never measures up to what I envision in my head. In that sense, Story is a will-o'-the-wisp. It is an ideal that can never be achieved. The result is that I am never happy with what I create.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I agree with the need for unhappiness, and can't help but wonder how much of that is a pose, in the same fashion as the mad scientist or eccentric painter, or a different take on the cliche of the tortured soul finding expression & release in Art.

What resonates for me is the idea that as a writer I'm always asking questions of myself and of the environment and situations in which I find myself, and I wonder if I was entirely content to just 'exist', accepting & unquestioning in some nirvana of perfect peace, if I'd feel as driven to ask the questions and mine words for answers in the same way I do now.

I'm not sure if it's catharsis, but it is a compulsion - it's not something I can choose not to do(tho I've sworn many times I'll never put pen to page again, I always end up going back for more).

Ink said...

Interesting replies all around. The connection between a writer and their writing is fascinating. Our writing is not us... and yet is there anything else quite so personal? It certainly, at least, seems to be a reflection of parts of us, mirrored pieces shared both consciously and unconsciously.

I find the whole love/hate thing fascinating too, partly because it's somewhat alien to me. I know it's common (at least among a number of my writing friends over the years it has been0, but I'm more of a love guy. :) Really, though, I'm pretty happy writing. I think I love the process too much to ever really hate it. Unsatisfied sometimes, yes... but that only means there's a necessity for revision, and I love revision. Maybe it's that sense of overwhelming optimism I seem to have with writing. Or maybe confidence? It's not right... yet. I think that "yet" is key, as it holds that all stories are perfectible in the future (even if they aren't - confidence does not have to rely solely on truth, perhaps). I love putting the words down too much to suffer, I guess. Or maybe I'm an idiot savant (with a stress on the idiot...), and simply too clueless to understand the agony.

Or maybe it's related to that idea of compulsion. I definitely feel that. The writing is always going on, even if only in my head. And if I'm going to be compelled to do something... might as well enjoy it, right?