sequentialsmart asked:

Do you think it's possible for an artist create touching, meaningful art if they lived a life without tragedy? While I haven't had an ideal life, I'm still the product of a privileged, middle-class, suburban life that's never been exposed to the horrors of war, violence, addiction, abuse, sudden deaths of loved ones, or any of the tragedies that have befallen the great artists. While I feel incredibly lucky so far, it feels like the best art in our history came from some very broken people.

ruckawriter answered:

Absolutely. I wish I had the mental wherewithal right now to do a web search for the essay Joyce Carol Oates wrote on this very subject several years ago (I think it ran in The New York Times Magazine, but I could be mistaken), where she took on the whole “suffering artist” topic as an extension of an American/Puritan ethic.

Look, everything I say about writing is my opinion, and only that. I am an authority on my own work, barely, that’s all. But I firmly, absolutely believe that good writing rises from two, intimately connected, places: empathy and honesty. The extension of the argument “write what you know” — when taken literally — means that we shouldn’t have fiction. But that’s not what it means, at least, not for my purposes; rather, it’s write what you know to be true. That’s an emotional truth, a universal truth. Certainly, experience of trauma and other hardships will provide insight into those things, will, perhaps, provide an access into writing about them that others cannot achieve. But to deny imagination, empathy… that’s utter nonsense.

I will not deny that there are some beautiful, powerful works brought to us by some very damaged, tragic souls. But I do not — I can not — believe that personal suffering on a Grand Scale is required to create meaningful or lasting work. I do not, and cannot, believe that we must “suffer for our art,” if by suffering for our art we mean exposure to the cruelest and most inhumane experiences imaginable. Anyone who has struggled to put the right words on the page, the right line on the canvas, the right shape cut into the marble, etc… they have suffered for their art. They needn’t become heroin addicts to then prove it.

I’m sure there are many who will disagree with me. But from where I’m sitting, it’s your voice, your ability to imagine, to empathize, and to relay those things that connect us all with honesty and courage that will create great art.

I strongly agree with Greg Rucka on this, and would add Orwell’s statement that good fiction is written by people who are not afraid.

Books written, books to write

I’m gratified by the response so far to One for My Baby. It’s a radical departure for me in various ways - the first book of mine with no reference to childhood, and with no backstory at all, and certainly the most stripped-down book I’ve written. My ambition was to get as close to having a blank page as it’s possible to get while still having a story.

It’s the fourth book in what I call my Phoenix Noir sequence (the others are How Do You Like Your Blue-Eyed Boy?, The Wrong Thing and When It All Comes Down to Dust, and I think it’ll be the last book I set in Phoenix for a while, though I intend to write a sequel to When It All Comes Down to Dust at some point. I’ve written about Phoenix since shortly after arriving there in 1995, and I’ve now said as much as I have to say about life there for the time being. 

My next book, which I’ve already started, is a cyberpunk story with no specific setting. I also want to write a book of stories set in Scotland, a place I stopped writing about after The Book of Man, and only started writing about again with a story I wrote in 2012, "Big Davey Joins the Majority." Writing that story unearthed something long-buried (and, I had thought, dead), and I realized that I have more stories to tell set in that small, cold country whose accent I still speak with.

And I want to write a Western. And a Zen police procedural series.


A Note on Robert Bresson’s Notes

One of the books I’ve found most helpful to my work is Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer. He refers to the actors in his films not as “actors,” but as “models,” because he sees the art of acting as something that gets in the way of the truth that is being shown. He writes: It would not be ridiculous to say to your models: “I am inventing you as you are.”

This reminds me of an interview I read with the actor Ray Winstone, in which he said that his friend Gary Oldman had been helpful to him. As they rehearsed together, Oldman would sometimes tell him, “I can see you acting, Raymond.”

Bresson sees film-making, and every other art, as being separate and unique. I disagree with him on this, and as evidence that he’s wrong I offer that I find his book helpful in all of my writing. When I read books I’ve written and cringe, it’s not because the writing is bad (though it may be) - it’s because I can see the writing, see myself writing, see my own artifice.

Current writing

I seem to be closing in on the the end of the novel I’ve been working on, about a musician in Phoenix who moonlights as an armed robber. I always want to get as close as I can to having a blank page while still having a story, and I think this book might be the closest I’ve gotten so far.

There’s something unique about this one for me: Usually, when I start writing a book, I know what the final scene is going to be, though I don’t know what it means, and I don’t know much that’s going to happen before the end. With this book, though, the ending is radically different than I thought it was going to be. 

I’ll write the ending soon, but first I have to crank out a ghost story set in Japan for an anthology…

This article reminds me of why the following poem by Wendell Berry is something I wish I could add as a footnote to everything I publish:

Do not think me gentle
because I speak in praise
of gentleness, or elegant
because I honor the grace
that keeps this world. I am
a man crude as any,
gross of speech, intolerant,
stubborn, angry, full
of fits and furies. That I
may have spoken well
at times, is not natural.
A wonder is what it is.


St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Wall of room in Ward Retreat 1. Reproductions made by a patient, a disturbed case of dementia praecox; pin or fingernail used to scratch paint from wall, top coat of paint buff color, superimposed upon a brick red coat of paint. Pictures symbolize events in patient’s past life and represent a mild state of mental regression. Undated, but likely early 20th century.

(Source: romanticinismo)

I think I write out of similar motivations. Maybe we all do, whether it’s writing, drawing, music, sculpture or shouting in the street.