By Judy Clement Wall
Some time ago, a writer I used to read frequently posed this question: “What does the writer have to write about if she’s living a frictionless life?”
The question seems academic, I know, because who lives a frictionless life, right? It’s hard to even imagine. But the writer asking the question had actually achieved just that. She was living her dream life. She had enough money and enough time. She felt comfortable and successful. She lived in beautiful surroundings where she could easily slip away for an afternoon on the beach, and sometimes that’s what she did.
And maybe one of the reasons the question so fascinated me is that I’d lost interest in her writing over time. As she got more Zen and content, I found her pieces to be less compelling. It’s a matter of taste of course, but she was far less relatable to me, her world an utterly unfamiliar idyllic paradise.
But it’s more than that, isn’t it? It’s not just that I’ve never experienced her reality.
The last book I read was a memoir written by an African American daughter of a preacher, who came of age during the Civil Rights Movement. Before that, I read WILD, about Cheryl Strayed’s solitary trek 1100 miles across the Pacific Crest Trail when she was 26 years old. And before that I read the memoir of a woman born in a prison to her heroin-addicted mother. Those worlds are no more familiar to me than the world of the writer who was living her perfect life, but I was enthralled by each one (perhaps because the friction was embedded in the stories, regardless of the writer’s current state).
Sometime later, I got into a conversation with a poet I adore. He’d been off the grid, out of touch, finding himself in the wilds. He was happier than he’d been in a long time, I could tell. I asked about his days and he described beautifully how they unfolded without expectation. What happened happened and it was beautiful, he said; he was content. I asked him if being content affected his writing, and he told me he didn’t buy into the myth of the suffering artist. He asked me if I did, and I told him I wasn’t sure.
In my own work, many of the pieces I’m most proud of were written during times of stress, but how can I know whether or not I’d have been able to write them (or maybe even something better than them) if my life had not been quite so angsty?
I don’t have an answer and so, as usual, I’m throwing it out to you. I’m curious what you think. Do we, as writers writing to illuminate the human condition, need to experience friction in order to adequately (masterfully) convey it? Do you write more or better when you’re troubled?
JUDY CLEMENT WALL is a freelance writer and course presenter for the Fear of Writing Online Course. Her short stories, essays and reviews have been published in literary journals and on some very cool websites like The Rumpus, Used Furniture Review, Lifebyme and Beyond The Margins. She recently finished her first novel, BEAUTIFUL LIVES, and here at FoW she chronicles the ups and downs of writing for publication. Judy writes about living creatively at Zebra Sounds, love at A Human Thing, and is a staff writer at Milliver’s Travels.