Saturday, February 4, 2017

Do Authors Have To Have Had a Miserable Life?

I've heard a lot of people say that in order for someone to be a good writer, he or she must have led a dark life full of sad experiences and alcoholism and just misery in general. When I first heard that, I thought I was doomed to failure because, as I only half-jokingly say, I grew up in a combination of a Norman Rockwell painting and a situation comedy. Sure, there were tough times, but life in general was happy. Or at least that's how I remember it--I've found over the years that there are less than positive events, like family fights, that, when I've been reminded of them, I realize I have absolutely no recollection of them. You may think that means I'm blocking out bad memories, and maybe I am, but I would argue it's more about having a terrible memory in general. I am occasionally reminded of happy events that I don't recall at all either. 

But I digress. Let's get back to the question of whether an author's life must be one of abject wretchedness in order to be successful. I should probably say that, depending on your definition of success, I may have no right to answer the question. I've made no best-seller lists, won no contests, or even succeeded in obtaining an agent or publisher. So if your definition is a traditional one, I've been an utter failure. And maybe that's made me a better writer. But that's not how I measure success. The fact that I've written four novels and a novella that people have enjoyed makes me successful. I have people who like my characters and my voice as a writer. I have a tribe. It's a small one, but it's real nonetheless. So I feel successful. And like I said, I haven't been abused and filled with mental anguish all my life. 

So why do people think that authors need to have lived like that? I guess probably a lot of it has to do with the fact that so many authors, like creative people in practically every field, have suffered from hard lives, substance abuse, and/or mental illness. But I think we only notice those folks for the same reason we notice the bad news on TV and the Internet before the good. We're drawn to the negative, the lurid, the spectacular, not really paying attention to the fact that for every wacked, out pill-popping, drunk author/actor/singer/artist, there are many quite successful ones that lead lives of quiet normality. 

But what of the argument that in order to write about sad things, one must have experienced those things? Well, the short answer is that that's just silly. Based on that thinking, no man could ever write in the voice of a woman, no white person could ever write in the voice of someone of any other race, and no one who has never been to another country could ever write about that place. And yet people successfully do this every day. How? Paying attention and being sensitive. 

Harry and Dee, the protagonists of my Shalan Adventures series, lost a baby. I've never experienced that, and yet people who have read my books say that I handled the emotional responses to that event accurately and with sensitivity. I've also never been sexually molested, physically or psychologically abused, been shot, or shot anyone. And yet my readers tell me that I've told stories about these events with believability. How? I know people who've gone through many of those things. I've listened to them talk of their experiences. I've hugged and cried with them as they've struggled with them. And their experiences have informed my writing. 

What of the things I've not experienced directly? As I've said before (like last week), good writers are first voracious readers. For every word I've written about the ins and outs of the life of a detective, I've read thousands. I've read books, articles, pamphlets, interviews, medical reports--you name it, I've read it for the sake of being able to write about it in a way that rings true. 

So successful writers don't have to write or drink themselves blind in order to get the voices in their heads to shut up for a while. They don't have to have been beaten or neglected or abandoned as children. They don't have to have been or done anything. But they do need to be aware and sensitive enough to internalize those experiences when they happen to the people around them and/or the characters they read about. So I guess the key to being a successful writer is compassion. Well, that and the ability to, you know, actually write. All the sensitivity in the world won't help if you just don't have a way with words. But the reverse is true too. Great wordsmiths who can't feel others' pain will write beautifully crafted, eloquent words that ring hollow to the reader. 

So maybe being good at writing is less about any one thing and more about lots of things coming together. Which makes writing a lot like life in general. The happiest, most fulfilled people are the ones who have the ability to enter into and come alongside the lives of the people around them and also have found a career that combines their passion and best abilities. 

You notice I didn't mention money in there. In my opinion, anyone who measures success based on their bank account is going to end up miserable. There's nothing wrong with making millions of dollars, but it should be a by-product of success, not the end product. 


  1. I have never believed that an author has to be tortured soul. It helps to understand what he's writing about, but I don't even really believe that you have to have first-hand experience. It's one of the joys of research.


    1. Ms. Delgado, typos do happen. I personally believe an online spell-checker is necessary. Even when I was an Mr. S' classroom practically a year ago, I still installed one. Grammarly is a nice free app. Research is amazing in any discipline in my opinion.

    2. I understood what you meant Pepper! :)

  2. Honestly...I don't think it's a necessary ingredient for success as a writer. You don't have to pilot a plane to write about flying, nor do you need to snort heroine to depict the highs.
    I actually believe experience blinds one to the various angles a topic can be tackled. As a novice you have so many questions, so many "whys, whats and how comes" that someone that has lived through an experience has tunnel vision towards.