Writing with (and without) Despair

We’re writing about those dark places this week, which feels apropos here in New England where, as my son gleefully announced every night for eight nights, “It’s 4:12 p.m.! Sunset! We can do Hanukkah!” I face my morning runs with extreme trepidation, as I go at 6 a.m., but since sunrise isn’t until after 7 a.m., I am wary of cars and holes in sidewalks and tree branches (in October, I gave myself a corneal abrasion running into a tree branch; so not fun!).

Darkness, though, appeals to me, both in the physical, literal sense as well as metaphysically. Don’t get me wrong: I love a bright sunny day that screams for me to go out and play. Dark days, though—like the gray, chilly day we had here—make we want to curl up with my writing. The worse the weather, the more productive I am as a writer.

Quote from Charles Bukowski
Image from Cultured Vultures

Dark writing appeals to me too. I remember a moment in my twenties when I realized that all my beloved writers were either alcoholics (Charles Bukowski, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker) or suicidal (again Dorothy Parker, Sylvia Plath). My own writing in this time dripped with melodrama and despair. I honestly believed in those days that one could not be both happy and a writer. I worried I was too soft, too happy to write, so I created drama in my personal life to help me suffer. I wanted to create work that dripped with despair. Every piece I wrote had a sad ending, because happy endings didn’t happen in real life. And because I seem to be in the habit of humiliating myself on this blog, I have found my binder of despair-filled writing from the early 1990s to share an example with you. This is characteristic of my Generation X lost-child nothing-really-matters-anyway days of writing:

Out of her window, she stares at an earth impaled by monoliths of concrete and steel. Consumed by the edifices of her nightmares, she is frigid, overwhelmed by the dearth of humanity. The last ray of daylight pierces the structures, reaching out to her, yet knowing the battle is lost, he loses his intensity and his rigid arms fall to the horizon, surrendering in defeat.

My dark days of writing
My senior thesis screenplay, full of brooding young women.

(I can’t believe I just put that out for all of you to see. My cheeks are bright red. And the truth is? The story only gets worse from there.)

Much of my twenties were spent in an existentialist funk and my writing reflected that. Because that was the only true writing.

Then something weird happened. I grew up. I found that life didn’t need to be a struggle. I could be happy. I could fall in love. I could find jobs I enjoyed. I could spend time with friends. And the strange part was, I could still write! Even when if I didn’t think life was all doom and gloom. Even if I wasn’t spending every night in an alcoholic stupor. Even when I had a solid job, a savings account, and a husband. I could write. In the light. Bizarre!

Next was an even bigger revelation: I didn’t like an unhappy ending. Please, don’t get me wrong: I am not a happy ending, bow-on-everything kind of writer. But everyone doesn’t have to die suffering, alone, in poverty to have a worthy story. Recently, Amy Sue Nathan interviewed Kristina McMorris on her wonderful blog Women’s Fiction Writers. Kristina put so beautifully exactly what I’m trying to achieve in my writing and what I like when I read:

I would have to say that my favorite endings are “satisfying conclusions.” Given the typical settings of my books, the characters who survive until the final page have experienced quite a bit of tragedy, so finding hope at the end is even more important than a happily ever after—especially since I like to think their imaginary lives would continue past the last page.

This. This is where I’ve landed. Things don’t always end happily. And that’s okay. They end with hope. With possibility. I love an ending that is satisfying, but allows for possibilities beyond the final page. I can’t imagine I’ll ever write sequels, because I like that unknowingness, that quality of uncertainty. Darkness is a good place to visit in writing. I like a dark story. But I also like if it comes—just a little—into the light.

You know what else makes light? The fire I’m about to create to burn that binder of writing from my 20s. There’s poetry in there, people. POETRY! Oy, the humiliation!

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Jennifer S. Brown is the author of MODERN GIRLS (NAL/Penguin). The novel, set in 1935 in the Lower East Side of New York, is about a Russian-born Jewish mother and her American-born unmarried daughter. Each discovers that she is expecting, although the pregnancies are unplanned and unwanted, in this story about women’s roles, standards, and choices, set against the backdrop of the impending war. Learn more at www.jennifersbrown.com.

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This article has 6 Comments

  1. So brave to share the primary source material!! Like Artist’s Way author Julia Cameron in the 80s had celebrated movie directors share their first, crappy films with her students. It’s so important to chart where we’ve come from. I love how you invert the idea that hopelessness is mature. What a great post!!

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