“Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”
I want to say a brief word today about the importance of making space for sadness.
I’m not going to give a lecture about being brave enough to face our sad feelings in order to work through them, instead of burying them and trying to dampen them and quiet them with busyness or alcohol or drugs or toxic positivity or any manner of distractions, only to see them eventually and inevitably break out – and often in more destructive forms, especially anger.
Woops, I just did.
Instead, I want to talk about the value of sadness to our writing.
I’m a predominantly cheerful person. I love to laugh, I’m known for my sense of humour (often in-your-face and inappropriate, but hey! welcome to me), and I like to think I’m warm and generous with a generally optimistic view on life.
So it comes as some surprise to me (and possibly others) that much of my writing is infused with a gentle (or more violent) melancholy, and regularly addresses issues such as death, disconnection, and loss. I can do funny, of course. But I think I am more skilled at delving down and offering darker emotions to my readers; saying, “It’s OK to feel all of this. We all do, and we can survive it.”
Partly, I blame my Irishness. “To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart,” said Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and that pretty much sums it up. We Irish (OK, I’m stereotyping wildly here, but hear me out), laugh hugely, tell stories, sing and luxuriate in music, gather friends around us with open arms and huge hearts, and finish the evening crying and singing together at the beautiful misery of it all. Think the Irish weather is unpredictable and breathtakingly gloomy but also sort of gorgeous and perfect? Wait until you love an Irish woman.
Stereotypes aside: I’ve always had a tendency towards melancholy, and it sits well with my happy nature and love of humour. Read that again. It’s possible, all at once. I welcome all of it and hope it makes me a better writer. I think it does, because I embrace the truth that we are all things in one: we are neither this nor that, but instead one contradictory, glorious, juicy mess. Ambivalence, contradiction, surprise, devastation, salvation, love and hate, death and resurrection: out of these are born stories worth writing and reading.
Therapy helped teach me that it’s OK to feel and face everything, and that sadness and hatred and anger and despair are all a vital part of the human emotional spectrum, and need not be feared. Maybe this is the writer’s role, in part: to help readers to be brave enough to feel; to show them reflections of their own, perhaps shamed and disowned selves, and thus invite them to know that they are…normal, and seen.
Like everyone, I’ve experienced a fair bit of heartache in my time. I hated every second of it. But difficulty and hardship and heartbreak are vital: they are the reason we can stand in the face of adversity and say “I can handle this trial. I know, because I’ve done it before”. The power in that knowing is hard to underestimate.
Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:
“Perhaps many things inside you have been transformed; perhaps somewhere, someplace deep inside your being, you have undergone important changes while you were sad.”
Yup. And now, I hope to translate that personal experience into something universal that will speak to others, and remind us all of our glorious, shared humanity.
Writers: you don’t have to be melodramatic about it, and happiness and joy and ecstasy can be as valuable to your art as any other emotion. I don’t believe in the “tortured artist” trope. You’re not a more worthy writer because you wear a black ripped jersey and live glowering and distant and eat cereal out of a packet with a dirty spoon and think your suffering is a blessing to the literary world.
I intend to keep laughing long and loud, and finding a most un-adultlike enjoyment in joke shops (whoopee cushions and fake dog turds, yes please) and toilet humour.
And: our sadness can be fuel. When melancholy knocks at your door, welcome it in, explore, and create.