Detail of Giuseppe Giorgetti’s Saint Sebastian (c. 1671)
In a letter to a friend, an exasperated Franz Kafka wrote, “Almost everyone who writes [objectifies] his sufferings in the very midst of undergoing them.” For a while, I collected these objectifications as inspiration, gathering journal entries and letters from my favorite authors into neat documents. But over time, these remarks became more and more burdensome, less relatable and more convoluted. I began to see patterns in how our highly exclusive literary canon constructs an inaccurate and reductive image of the “suffering artist” that pervades public perception.
Much of the language used to describe “suffering” – an illness, a curse, a monster – suggests that writing itself is responsible for suffering. By extension, the writer who accepts the “curse” is the only one to blame for its consequences. Of course, writing is hard. But there are certainly other reasons why a writer suffers, including a society that fails to fairly compensate its writers, a content-obsessed audience that demands feel-good relatability, or a white, Western male-dominated canon that invalidates nearly everyone else. Or you might just have a bad personality, bad friends, bad luck, bad taste. But unfortunately, when we say that writing equals suffering, we only further blame ourselves for something that is not inherently good or bad. We also excuse the forces surrounding us that should be held accountable for our painful circumstances. Most importantly, we forget what Octavia Butler writes in her essay “Furor Scribendi,” that “so much of writing is fun.”
That being said, the link between writing and suffering has created a large collection of metaphors, and I’ve read too many to keep to myself. So here is a spectrum of suffering in the words of “notable” Western authors, ranging from unpleasant to excruciating. Does your despair fit here? How painful is your suffering, how tormenting is your writing? Is it as bad as a “hot turd?” Are you haunted by demons, ghosts or the spirits of multiple women? Or are you merely taking a long walk into the night?
Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour (2015)
To be a writer, also — and this is the contradiction — demands a going inward and reclusiveness, just plain reclusiveness — not going out — staying home all the time — not going out with everybody else going to play…
— Susan Sontag, lecture at 92Y (April 16, 1992)
Pain level: Mild loneliness. “Not going out” while everyone else plays is not the end of the world, especially if you are a mature, responsible grown-up. Sometimes staying home is a reward. You’re within the comfort of your home, you can find something and someone to play with here, instead. For now, your suffering is not disruptive, simply inconvenient.
Nicolas Cage as Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation (2002)
Don’t ever write a novel unless it hurts like a hot turd coming out.
— Charles Bukowski
Pain level: A mild sting at most, but probably refreshing afterwards. At this point, it’s worth it. On a different note, Bukowski has discussed the “hot turd” analogy for writing multiple times, which leads me to think he had either digestion problems, or an obsession. On one occasion, he wrote that writing should “come like hot turds after a good beer drunk;” on another, he claimed that his poems kept coming like “hot turds down a hill.” And in his short story “A Lovely Love Affair,” the protagonist thinks to himself, “I liked turds but it was such terrible work creating them.” Much like writing.
Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath in Sylvia (2003)
Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.
— George Orwell, “Why I Write”
Pain level: Spiritual disease. You’re plagued by senseless neediness and constant crying, and your tiny baby body. You are a very sick, demonic baby and you really want attention. It is never a good day to be sick, or a baby, but the demonic aspect makes it worse.
Dane Dehaan and Daniel Radcliffe as Lucien Carr and Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings (2013)
Writers are like eremites or anchorites — natural-born eremites or anchorites — who seem puzzled as to why they went up the pole or into the cave in the first place. Why am I so isolate in this strange place? Why is my sweat being sold as elixir? And how have I become so enmeshed with works, mere works, phantoms?
— Joy Williams, “Uncanny Singing That Comes from Certain Husks”
Pain level: Disorientation. Nothing makes sense anymore. The pain here is mainly because you are very, very confused. For some reason, you’re in a cave; you don’t remember why or how. It’s weird, but mainly disgusting. People are selling and drinking your sweat, because they quite literally live off of your salty labor.
Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining (1980)
An artist is a creature driven by demons. He don’t know why they choose him and he’s usually too busy to wonder why. He is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done. […] The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.
— William Faulkner interviewed by the Paris Review in 1956
Pain level: Moral torment and bad behavior. You are a threat to yourself, your mother, and all older women. This time, you’re not a demon-possessed baby but a man chosen by a faction of writing demons. They seem to have stolen your morals too, forcing you to be a jerk against your will.
Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours (2002)
I need to speak of these women in me who have entered, they have struck me, they have hurt me, in me they have wakened the dead, they have cleared paths, they have brought me wars, gardens, children, foreign families, graveless mournings, and I’ve tasted the world in their tongues. They have lived their lives in me. They have written. They have died. They continue unceasingly to live, unceasingly to die, unceasingly to write.
— Helene Cixous, FirstDays of the Year
Pain level: Internal chaos. Not too empty, like someone trapped in a cave, but too full. You are full of women who not only hurt you but bring unto you their own hurts, and hurt you the same way. Your pain is multiplied and duplicated by the fact that you’re living multiple lives inside of your body, all at the same time. They’re also constructing an entire universe from scratch inside your body. No one else can see them but you. I call this “just another Friday night.”
Peter Weller as William Lee in Naked Lunch (1991)
A writer’s life is so hazardous that anything he does is bad for him. Anything that happens to him is bad: failure’s bad, success is bad; impoverishment is bad, money is very, very bad. Nothing good can happen.
— E. L. Doctorow interviewed by the Paris Review in 2000
Pain level: Utter hopelessness. No escape. Everything you do, destined for failure. Life is very, very bad. Everything is very, very bad. You’re bad, you’re all bad. Why try?