My teenage son and I were watching the movie La La Land and the ending made him sad. It brought up memories of his first heartbreak, which happened in the not-so-distant past. I wished I could comfort him or tell him that someday those feelings will be transformed into painless memories.
But the truth is I don’t believe heartbreaks ever completely leave us.
I still remember my first break up at sixteen, when I laid on the couch for two days vowing I would never return to school. And lately I’ve been dredging up more difficult memories as I rewrite and edit my memoir. I’m writing about things that hurt me five years ago that I should be over. As a result, I find myself being tired, emotional, and irritable. For every painful scene I eke out I need a nap.
Worse, I fall into a strange Jekyll-and-Hyde routine where I tell myself that these feelings make perfect sense before, a split second later, amnesia blots out that comforting voice and the worries begin. What the heck is wrong with me? Do I need to take vitamin D? Do I have a thyroid problem? It’s as if that reasonable internal dialogue never happened.
Usually before too long I remember: Oh. It’s the damn writing.
Maybe I should stop. Why bother going through this? My mother has said to me more than once, “Why do you want to relive that? I hate to see you go through it again.”
It’s not as if I enjoy reliving the past. All I know is that, as a writer, it feels as if there is no choice in the matter. I write about what I know and about those things that have an emotional charge. Sometimes the emotion can feel like an ocean surrounding and drowning me, but the words, sentences, and paragraphs that flow from my fingers are the lifeline that pulls me up and out.
Besides, like I keep telling myself, if it doesn’t affect the writer, it won’t affect the reader.
I think that what affected my son and me watching La La Land was the immutable truth that the pursuit of art can lead to pain. Even when we know it, we can’t help ourselves.
Does this mean writers (or artists, musicians, actors) are addicted to suffering? My answer is yes, but in the most necessary, uplifting way.
What do other writers think? I asked three other Chicago writers why they’re such gluttons for punishment and here’s what they said:
“The best stories come from painful experiences that hopefully are filled with shame, embarrassment, and humiliation. Getting in touch with those feelings is what helps the reader to connect to your writing. If you want to write personal and honest stories from your life, you will not be able to avoid to “rehashing the past.” Is it painful? Hell yes, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. And it is absolutely necessary because that is where the healing takes place for your readers and yourself.”
—Jimmy Carrane, Chicago improv teacher and author of three books on improv. Find his blogs and podcast, Improv Nerd at Jimmycarrane.com.
“Pain is a signal to me that I’m on to something—for myself, and likely for other people as well. When I can find the strength to sit with it, that’s usually where the real gold is. The reward can be a more alive piece of writing, but more importantly, a new level of healing and understanding for myself.
Maybe writers aren’t addicted to suffering, but rather, obsessed with healing. And the only way to heal is to look at the pain. As the song says, ‘good morning, heartache, sit down.’”
–Sandy Suminski, Chicago author, storyteller, and mental health advocate. Read her work at SandySuminski.com.
“As a writer I tend to avoid writing at all costs. I think most writers do. My house becomes very clean, the laundry gets done, but whatever it is I’m thinking of doesn’t go away because of the avoidance. There comes a point when I have no choice but to face the past, because the pain of not doing it is worse than the demons within. I have to write, and in the end there’s a tremendous relief and learning and I always wonder why I didn’t do it sooner.”