Does Hardship Improve Your Writing?

We just got back from a vacation in northern Michigan. We had a great time, but now I’m way behind on my novel. I need to get busy.
I’m too tired to write a long post tonight, but I’ve been thinking a lot about this question: Does hardship make you a better writer? A lot of people think so, but I’m skeptical. A little hardship might be a good thing — it can fill you with grit and determination and perhaps even some righteous zeal. I’m thinking now of Dickens, whose miserable childhood spurred him to write some remarkable novels. But constant misery isn’t good for anyone.
I can think of many desperately unhappy people who produced works of genius — David Foster Wallace, Kurt Cobain, etc. — but it’s easy to confuse correlation with causation. Did Cobain write great music because he was unhappy, or was he a musical genius who also happened to have problems with addiction and depression? When Cobain killed himself in 1994, many people assumed that the pressures of becoming a rock star had contributed to his suicide, but I think music helped him far more than it hurt him. Without it, he would’ve killed himself even sooner.

Wow, this is morbid. I’m going to end this post on a more cheerful note: I’ve discovered a wonderful new thing to eat. It’s the spicy lamb noodle soup from Xi’an Famous Foods on Broadway and 102nd Street. Truly delicious and only eight dollars! The next time you’re in New York you’ve got to try it.

8 thoughts on “Does Hardship Improve Your Writing?

  1. A few days ago I read something related. A well known song contains the lyrics, ‘destruction leads to a very rough road but it also breeds creation.’ I googled to see if that’s original to the artist which led me to this: ‘As an artist, he inherently understood that some things need to be torn down in order that others can rise for the better of yourself and everyone else. Progress is not a straight line, innovation is not a straight line, there is a lot of pain in new things, in creating things, it’s scary and can inflict scars.’

    The author continued: ‘In the rain forest, it’s difficult for small saplings to grow tall as most light is blocked out by the canopy. But when a tree eventually dies and falls to the ground, in it’s place many new ones are able to grow.’

    I wouldn’t suggest a writer seeks out pain suffering and misfortune but it definitely forces you to look within and possibly leads you to destroy, to seek to kill of you will certain aspects of yourself. Which, in itself can be very painful.

    I believe it’s Hinduism that espouses a basic tenet of, ‘to live is to suffer and to suffer is to grow.’

    Sorry if this is too long, but it’s a topic I’ve given much thought to over the years.

    • ‘possibly leads you to destroy, to seek to kill of you will certain aspects of yourself. Which, in itself can be very painful.

      Edit: to seek to kill off, if you will, certain aspects of yourself

  2. Several forms of mental illness’ “good side” is creativity, but, at the same time, the illness saps away much of the energy to create. I’ve certainly seen that in someone I know who has secondary personality disorder as well as friends who are manic depressive.

    Suffering that isn’t related to mental illness also has positive and negative aspects, but it’s what the person does with it that matters. Too much suffering is as debilitating as serious illness.

    I’ve had a fairly dull and happy life, but I have a creative imagination that fuels my writing, and I’ve never been beaten up, had a boat blow up under me, or gotten shot at, but I’ve had no problem writing about any of them, courtesy of research and talking to people.

  3. I live by the adage “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger….except bears and shrapnel…that stuff can just maim you and make limp or sit in a wheel chair forever. So fight like every second is your last here on earth….and you might find a thriller in there somewhere.

  4. A very good post, Mark: I like both the morbid and cheerful notes of it. 🙂
    And I agree, the hardship is good to some degree, but like anything else it doesn’t determine who we are. There are many brilliant people without too dramatic hardship in their lives.
    And then there is always this relativity. What appears hard to us might not appear to others. And what appears hard to us during our childhood, might cause smiles or even laughs when we grew a bit older.

  5. A few years ago, my husband was unemployed and could not get a job. It’d been something like two years since he had one. I was in this despair place in my mind, and in my writing, all my characters were crazy. Too over the top emotional, too big, too unbelievable. My critique group at the time kicked my work back over and over.
    Then we moved, hubby got a steady job, and my mind got better. And I look back at the stuff I wrote and shake my head. Hardship is great–AFTERWARD. While you’re going through it, it’s sheer hell.

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