Hard Little Happiness

In my last post, “Writing the Good Fight,” I talked about the hazards of writing conflict and how difficult it can be for us gentle readers and writers to want to jump headlong into penning some tough fight scenes. Well, as hard as it is to write down and dirty conflict in fiction, I’ve noticed that happiness is arguably even harder for my students to write than conflict.

Pain and the Novice Muse

The Muse.

My guess is that happiness is so hard to write about for a number of reasons, the first and most obvious being that happiness is elusive, subjective, fast-moving, and slippery. If you kept a journal as a teenager or if you keep one now try thinking of a time in the past when you know you were happy and go back and read how you documented that time, if you documented it. If you’re anything like me, a lot of good, joyful, things occurred during the ten or so years that I actively kept a journal and yet to read my accounting of those years, you’d think I was exclusively miserable, isolated, and angry. Why did I only document the sad things? Well, for one thing, when I was happy, newly in love or excelling in school or playing sports every day and feeling really good in my body and my life, I didn’t have time to dwell on, let alone write down, the minutia of the day’s disappointments. I tended to only write when I needed to figure something out, and writing when I needed to figure something out meant that I always had something “deep” to say. It made me feel “like a writer.”  My moments of happiness began to feel like not very important subjects because real artists wrote about pain and clearly if I only “felt like writing” when I was in pain I must be a “real writer.” Of course, writing only when you’re down can be a kind of self-perpetuating artist’s trap that extends well-beyond the narcissistic and mopey teenage years if you don’t begin to interrupt that logic. If you still believe that pain is the best muse, cut that mess out. In fact, cut out the idea of the muse all together. Lightning doesn’t strike and make you creative or profound, you sit down at your desk every day and the act of putting your hands on the keyboard allows inspiration to strike.

The Boring Underbelly of Joy

Think about the great books of world literature. Make a list of your favorites in your head. Okay, now think of how many of those books feature scenes of happiness? My guess is that it may take you a minute to think of some. It is much easier to think of the wrenching pain or even the bitter comedy than the moments of pure joy. Why should it be so hard? Perhaps because we think of happiness as a boring subject. Leo Tolstoy famously began Anna Karenina with the sentence: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Perhaps we think that there is no story in happiness, because there is presumably no conflict.  Literary critics go as far back as Dante’s Divine Comedy to argue that while Dante’s Inferno is a hell of a good read, his Paradiso is far from heavenly. Puns aside, critics argue that Paradiso is less admired because its focus on heavenly perfection, on happiness and light, bores us as readers. We may seek happiness in our own lives but we don’t want to read about the happiness of others. More recently Ian McEwen (for my money the best British novelist writing today) tackled the problem of writing happiness in his 2005 novel, Saturday. McEwan’s protagonist, Perowne has it all: a good job, lots of money, a wife with whom he is still in love and to whom he is still attracted, two healthy grown children. The source of conflict in the novel is all external: taking place all in one day, February 15, 2003, the day when hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in London to demonstrate against the impending war in Iraq. The result of McEwan’s experiment is uneven at best. Perowne seems literally embarrassed by his riches yet doesn’t grow much from the book’s start to its finish. The book is not so much boring, as static, dissatisfying, journey-less.

Putting Happiness in its Place

Zora Neale Hurston looking joyful.

So if Dante and McEwan can’t write entertainingly about happiness what makes me so sure you can do it? You can do it because you are going to put happiness in its place. The problem is not with writing scenes or moments of happiness or joy–a novel feels shallow and soulless without some joy–the problem is taking happiness as the subject of your novel. So yes, it is boring to read about people who are basically content because they don’t want anything, because if they don’t want anything there is nothing to strive for and if they don’t strive then there is no story. That said, it is also really boring to read about someone who is so depressed that he/she doesn’t want to get out of bed to try for anything either.  Emotion in fiction is a matter of proportion. Zora Neale Hurston was a master of emotional proportion because she understood that to depict one end of the emotional spectrum without depicting the other is to present the reader with an incomplete version of life. In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston writes: “I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and sword in my hands.” That, friends, is the emotional spectrum we all should strive for in our fiction. No one will care about your protagonist’s pain if we don’t believe he or she is capable of joy. We don’t want to root for losers, for whiners. Nor do we want to root for sappy, pie-in-the-sky fruitloops either. We want to root for characters who are capable of some small scrap of joy. They may not have experienced joy in twenty years, but joy must exist as a flickering memory or as some kind of hoped for possibility, because without the possibility of joy there is nothing worth journeying for.

Your Writerly B-12 Shot for Injecting Some Joy Up in Your Work

  • For each character you write, but especially for your protagonist and your primary antagonist I want you to spend some time creating happy memories. I can hear you now saying: “But my character had a shit childhood where nothing good ever happened. How can I create a happy memory for this character?” Or maybe you feel that way about your own childhood. My belief is that happiness is deeply subjective and exists on a very broad spectrum, but that it exists everywhere in everyone’s life. So, if your character lived in an abusive foster home as a child and is now a cop who works to protect children perhaps his happiest memory as a child was the free popsicle the church gave out in the summer after boring vacation bible school. Maybe he hated church and everyone there. Maybe he felt they were all hypocrites, but maybe that popsicle touched a special joyful place inside of him that was his, that was private, that no one else could soil. Write about that popsicle the way a rich kid would write about receiving a brand new bicycle on his 6th birthday. If your world is small and dark, so too, might your pleasures be, but pleasures still exist. They are fewer and farther between, but they exist, and they are arguably all the more important to hone in on and polish until they shine.
  • Scale down your understanding of happy moments. If you live in the U.S. you’ve likely been conditioned by our consumer culture to think there is always someone happier than you, always some thing you could buy that would make you happier, more complete. As a result, it is sometimes genuinely difficult for us to identify authentic sources of happiness in our own lives, let alone transcribe them to our characters. So, even if your character’s life is not so brutal as the hypothetical child above, do not be afraid to look for the small joyful moments rather than the giant milestones. If we look only to the culturally sanctioned “happiness bringers:” graduation, material gain, sex, love, marriage, birth, travel, we may miss much of the nuance of our characters.
  • Don’t make the mistake of thinking that pain, by itself, is more interesting than joy. It’s not. Suffering is interesting in relation to an end goal. We will watch a character suffer if we think he’s going somewhere. If he’s spinning his wheels, we’ll walk away; we can watch real people spin their wheels on the internet for free.
  • Tolstoy may be right about the happiness of families but he is wrong about individuals; striving for happiness is a source of great material because it keeps your character wanting something and as long as your character wants something your character is moving and acting. This propels your character from scene to scene and into conflicts with other characters. All great conflicts start because one person’s method of trying to be happy conflicts with another person’s method. It’s as simple as that.
  • If you aren’t happy in your own life, think about why not. What of your own pursuits of happiness can you use to animate your characters? Think about all the obstacles to your own happiness and see if any of them might work for your character. Who knows? Maybe you’ll realize you’re happier than you thought.

2 thoughts on “Hard Little Happiness

  1. storiesbyray says:

    When I approach a short story or a novel I find that what makes me stop reading, aside from sensing that the piece of writing somehow lacks authenticity, is the sensation of feeling overwhelmed by that work’s sadness. And perhaps that overwhelming feeling of sadness is also what can make a work seem unauthentic, or otherwise sensationalized. Thank you E.R. for validating that for me – I thought I was just being a p—-.

  2. erandersonfiction says:

    @Storiesbyray I think many writers have read too much Raymond Carver (who I love, but there can be only one Raymond Carver) and mistake general dissatisfaction, angst, and disconnection with real sadness and pathos. Real sadness and pathos can take you on a journey because presumably to be that deep down torn up you must have experienced the loss of something truly good. You know highs and lows. What troubles me is the number of books that trade on a kind of bored unhappiness that is by its very nature stagnant. I know there are a great many people in life who are living like that but I don’t want to read about them. Static characters who never grow are antithetical to fiction but that doesn’t stop folks from trying to write them in the name of being “deep” or “talking about the postmodern condition.” I just think when we are fighting even harder as writers to keep a reader’s attention away from a million devices and distractions the main character must be likable enough to root for them on their journey. He can be a serial killer but he better be like Hannibel Lector, one charismatic killer.

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