j’s Journey: Writerly Angst (and who needs it)

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.

13 Responses to j’s Journey: Writerly Angst (and who needs it)
  1. Nuttin'
    April 6, 2012 | 10:34 AM

    Oops! I lost my whole comment, starting over…

    I’m not a writer in the sense that that’s what I do like you and most of the readers here, but I do have a blog that I’m very proud of. I started it in the absolute worst emotional disconnected time in my life, hoping I could make some sense of the feelings and emotions and things that were happening to me — I wanted control of something and it seemed the blog was it. The early posts are completely self-indulgent prose by a lost soul, it’s hard for me to read those… so I don’t. But many people did. Then, as I’ve started putting some stuff together, the tone in my blog is changing — not purposefully but, since the blog is a sort of chronical of my emotional “awakening”, it changes as I change. Some of the pieces or poems that I’ve put up recently have been the ones that I’m like, “Yes! This is fucking awesome!” — but, they got less traffic and comments then some that have me writing about the more angsty stuff. So… for me, I remind myself of the purpose of my writing… it’s to help me move forward (and sometimes backwards and sideways) and my greatest thrill is when I get an email or a comment from someone who says, “thank you, me too”. So… I think the audience will change as the writer changes. The key is if the writer can still find that connection between their angst and their readers angst and then help everyone make some sense of it (that may be putting undo pressure on the writer).
    So… yes, I think angst is necessary in writing, at least writing from the heart. I mean if there’s no angst, what do you write about… that the coffee shop was out of hazelnut syrup and put nuttella syrup in your coffee instead? Although that gave me great angst, I don’t think anyone would want to read a poem about it.
    Sorry to have taken up so much space here. But, even in my “I’m not a writer but I have a blog blog”, I strive to become better at telling a story that many can relate to and maybe my angsty words will stick with them.

    Wonderful post!

    • j
      April 6, 2012 | 2:08 PM

      I’ve noticed that too. It would seem that “getting your shit together” doesn’t quite sell as well as “I’m broken,” and I seem to be saying just that in my own story of having felt less connected to a writer who clearly was not broken (or at least not writing about the broken bits).

      I agree with you that you have to write what you feel strongly connected to as honestly and deeply as you can and trust your audience to find you. We’re all – writers and readers alike – just figuring it out as we go.

  2. Karen Hogan
    April 6, 2012 | 12:14 PM

    I’m not sure it is possible to have a frictionless life. Or, to more accurately express what I mean, if one is living one’s life authentically, I think life is filled with moments that take us to places we might not even know existed. We have the choice to learn from those moments. If we don’t, then we might have the illusion we are living a frictionless life, but, really, we are just skimming the surface, hoping that life doesn’t intrude, doing whatever is necessary to maintain the illusion.

    Of course, one who does that makes for a very interesting character in a story for they usually create a great deal of friction for others.

    I guess I would also say that suffering doesn’t make us an artist, it makes us human.

    What’s that saying?: No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.

    Wherever one’s life is (enough money, not enough money, everyone is fine, everyone is sick), as a writer, we always need to be willing to go deep within ourselves. Faulkner referred to it as the human heart in conflict with itself. It is only that, he said that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

    • j
      April 6, 2012 | 2:16 PM

      I know, I thought that too. Is it even possible to live a frictionless life? She was definitely writing about one, whether or not it was an accurate depiction of her behind-the-scenes life.

      I love the Faulkner quote. Today I read in a post that writers “need to be willing to peel our own layers back until we reach that tender, raw, voiceless place—the place where our crunchiest stories come from… But many who come to writing do so because they were voiceless at some point in their lives, so doing that can be the most terrifying risk of all.”

      I agree completely; it’s the right goal, worth every painful step of the journey to get there.

      • Karen Hogan
        April 6, 2012 | 2:33 PM

        I guess the other thing is that it’s perfectly okay to find moments of contentment. One doesn’t need to have outside circumstances be perfect to have that contentment, though if someone wants to give me a bunch of money and a house near the beach I wouldn’t say no.

        But even with all the basic survival stuff taken off the plate, I think a good, authentic life is necessary. I don’t know who the writer is you mentioned, but I’m not so sure she is getting very Zen. I think she is just getting lazy.

        I think maybe we should get away from the word angst. I looked up the definition, just so I could be clear. It means fear or anxiety. I don’t think we need to live in fear or anxiety. Its root comes from anguish, which I think we probably do need to feel if we are to be loving, compassionate people. Anguish to me says that we struggle with something. I think struggle is what Faulkner means when he talks about the human heart in conflict with itself.

  3. Ann MG
    April 6, 2012 | 5:15 PM

    I don’t buy into the suffering (or the crazy) artist either–the suffering is too often immobilizing. There needs to be just that little bit of room left over to imagine, to let something grow, to be able to create something. Being able to invent something means you can see options.

    But I also think someone can lose the drive. This thing is hard, and if you lose/resolve one of your motivators, do you have another that will push you to work? Reminds me of one of my favorite fridge magnets: “I’d work here even after I won the lottery!”

    • j
      April 8, 2012 | 11:49 AM

      Ha! Love the magnet. I think you’re right that often the suffering is too immobilizing. I have felt that – too sad or angry or hurt or raw to write – but there have been times when, against a deadline, I’ve written despite feeling lost or sad or angsty or overwhelmed, and what I’ve produced was surprising to me.

      There likely is no answer, certainly not one that fits all. I wondered if the writer who asked the original question asked because she felt a lack of drive or urgency in her writing…

  4. joanne firth
    April 6, 2012 | 7:15 PM

    This is a fascinating and timely. To answer your questions. Yes, I do think you need to experience the human condition at some level in order to convey it masterfully. Some of the stories I have written were after the feelings of being troubled were well past. The stories stuck because they had an impact on my life. They came around full circle, finding a place safe in my heart. Looking back on them, though painful, I could write about them from a place of experience rather than a place of anxiousness.

    I am a true believer that time has a remarkable way of putting things into perspective. As an example, if a person is in the midst of a dramatic crisis of some sort, writing about it can help release some the angst. How different would the same story be, writing about it, after time has gone by?

    This quote, to me, says it all. …”But many who come to writing do so because they were voiceless at some point in their lives, so doing that can be the most terrifying risk of all.”

    As you know, I look so forward to reading all of what you have to write. You are opening so many doors, initiating amazing conversations and enriching lives of your readers. Thank you for that.

    • j
      April 8, 2012 | 11:59 AM

      Thank you, Joanne. I suspect a lot depends upon what you’re writing about. The times when I’ve written under a great deal of stress and sadness and confusion, I was writing fiction. The details of the story I was writing and the details of the one I was living were different, so only the amplified emotions carried over.

      I don’t think I could have written (well) about the shit I was going through at the time, but I do think that my own emotional state helped me get at some things in my fiction I might not have otherwise. Or maybe I would have, because how can I know?

      I love that quote too. The whole piece is wonderful. (It’s from Writer Unboxed, and I posted it on FB if you want to read it. It’s not only powerful, but also reassuring… and we all need a little of that, right?)


  5. Julia Munroe Martin
    Twitter: wordsxo
    April 6, 2012 | 7:17 PM

    Although I agree it’s impossible there might be a “friction-less” world, I also think that you don’t need stress to write. For me, if I have the wrong kinds of worry and stress, I *cannot* write (if I have a serious health worry or an overwhelming worry about one of my kids or my husband). Definitely one who thinks that too much worry can actually be immobilizing or cause loss of drive. That said, I also think that some of my most interesting writing has come from my most upsetting or stressful life moments — but that’s well after they’re over and I’m back to a state of calm.

    • j
      April 8, 2012 | 12:05 PM

      Hi, Julia. Your comment sort of reinforces one of the conclusions I’m reaching in my own mind. I think generally that time and distance gives us clarity when we’re writing about our most upsetting or stressful life moments. But I think sometimes those feelings can fuel other writing about unrelated things.

      And sometimes not. Certainly I’ve had times when I’m just too shredded to write.

      I’d love a chance to see if being too happy and content would affect my ability to write or leave me with nothing to write about. (Whoa, just had one of those “be careful what you wish for” moments.) 🙂

  6. Estrella Azul
    April 9, 2012 | 8:18 AM

    Some of my most well-received, commented on posts, flash fiction and poems are the ones that come straight from the soul, the ones that have me second-guess myself and questions if I should hit “publish” or bury them…

  7. j
    April 9, 2012 | 11:41 AM

    Me too. Did you write them when you were in the midst of the troubled time, or later about the troubled time, or are you not talking about troubled times?

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