Do You Have to Suffer to Write?

February 19, 2014 | By | 37 Replies More

XmasDayFamous authors are often distinguished by horrific childhoods, intensive suffering, depression or desperation. Think Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wolff. Memoirists notably mine their traumas like gold, exorcising demons along the way. Of course, conflict is the core of storytelling, and emotional conflicts are fiction’s treasure, but do you have to be miserable to write great fiction?

Novelists imagine our characters’ heartache. We create suffering. We struggle through the writing regimen, and nagging anxieties about our futures, but our lives do not have to be monstrous. In fact, I think stable lives may be better for writing, permitting a blank slate of sorts. If we want our characters to shine, we have to get out of our own way.

My younger daughter displayed unusual writing talent as a child. Teachers marveled at her descriptive prose and remarkably sophisticated metaphors. She constantly scribbled phrases and poetry on notepads scattered around the house, I still have a trunk filled with them. We were all certain she would be a writer. And then she read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Diary of Anne Frank, among others, and cried to me one day, “Mom, how will I ever be a great writer? Nothing bad ever happens to me.”

Fiction is meant to be invention. Yes, our stories must feel authentic, and because human suffering is as much a part of our lives as the rising of the sun, stories feed on sorrow and struggle. However one does not have to perpetually suffer to write, or to create any art form. We have all known difficulties, or we wouldn’t be human. We can project from what know, and, if we pay close attention, use what we observe.

Joyce Carol Oates imagines stunning scenarios based on tidbits in the newspapers. Carol Shields wrote “The Stone Diaries” based on one line in an obituary. Elizabeth Gilbert just published “Signature of All Things” inspired by female botanists in the 1800’s. What infuses their fiction is compassion, and the critical writing question: what if?

Tolstoy had a large loving family, it was the vodka, and his idealism, that fueled his imagination. Dostoyevsky, yes, he had his share of woe, and behaved badly, and we all know about Edgar Allan Poe, but writers do not have to be addicts or suffer bi-polar disorder either.

RandyKraftBookCoverWhen I started writing thirty years ago, I was unhappy in my marriage, I was still struggling with the premature death of my mother and with an angry father. I couldn’t see beyond myself. My struggles bogged down my writing, too trapped by my own despondency to create good fiction.

It is infinitely preferable to draw wisdom from past hurts and pay attention to the sadness that exists everywhere, hard to miss. We don’t have to beat our breasts or take drugs or toss and turn at night at write. Bad things don’t have to happen to write fiction.

These days, I am a happy woman. My daughters are thriving, I am blessed with wonderful friends and colleagues, I live in a beautiful place where I breathe clean air and have fresh water, I’m healthy, and I read and write every day. I’m out of my own head and out of my own way. The writing is all the better for it.

Randy Kraft is a freelance writer and book reviewer. Born and raised in New York City, she currently resides in Southern California. “Colors of the Wheel” was published in January by Infinity Press. Told as intersecting fictional biographies, the novel explores the challenges of being brown in a black and white culture. Randy blogs at and Tweets about reading and writing @ocbookblogger.


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Category: Being a Writer, Contemporary Women Writers, On Writing

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  1. Do Writers Need Pain? | LucyWelchWrites | April 27, 2016
  1. So what about memoir? How do I walk into the gut wrenching pain of the past without having it envelop me?

    • Randy Kraft says:

      Interesting question. Perhaps you’re not yet ready to confront the past in order to reflect and share with the reader in a way that resonates. Or, perhaps that pain is exactly what infuses the writing. What I’m talking about is the sort of must-suffer emotionally that some have embraced which means you cannot be happy and be a writer. Not at all the same as mental illness. Sort of the “only as happy as the least happy child” syndrome, which is the very essence of co-dependency. One must be able to at least maintain arm’s distance to distill and understand in a way that makes it meaningful to the reader. Just one opinion.

  2. With all due respect, Randy, I hope you’ll take my comment with empathy and compassion.

    Unlike anyone who has commented so far, I do have bipolar disorder.
    I have a University of California B.A. literature degree,a freelance writing career of almost 20 years, a book deal, a wonderful marriage of 17 years, two beautiful little girls and many other blessings.

    I was put off by the title “Do You Have to Suffer to Write”. Those of us writers who live with severe mental illness did not choose to suffer. I wouldn’t wish bipolar disorder on my worst enemy. I don’t feel that it’s necessary to have bipolar in order to create brilliant work. Moreover, I believe that bipolar disorder is often sugarcoated and glamorized by society when it comes to creativity.

    If you read Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison’s classic “Touched With Fire” about manic depression and creativity, or Dr. Alice W. Flaherty’s book “The Midnight Disease” anout creativity, writing and writer’s block, you’ll read about a variety of superstar mentally ill writers. Yes, they’ve created works of a caliber that most of us dream of composing, but I’d rather be stable than trade places with any of them.

    You wrote “stable lives may be better for writing, permitting a blank slate of sorts…” While that sounds totally sensible, it’s not always the case. I crafted two lengthy book proposals with sample chapters that landed book deals with two separate, established publishers while unstable.

    Those are my only book deals to date, and I’m stable and productive now. I reiterate that I’d rather be stable than sick, but I bring this all up to illustrate that in my case a stable life wasn’t better for my writing quality or writing career. Bipolar disorder is not a cookie cutter brain disease.

    Of course one doesn’t have to suffer in order to write her finest work. Thank God. But please remember that some of your readers don’t always fit the mold that’s portrayed by a society that continues to stigmatize mental illness.

  3. I enjoyed this post very much. It’s spot on. Sometimes a writer’s suffering can warp the writing process and get in the way of the story, sometimes it leads to greater empathy with the suffering of others. It’s the empathy and understanding that creates great art and sharpens the words we choose into powerful prose.I salute you Randy

  4. Mary Latela says:

    Randy, I really like your essay. Good Lord, suffer more so you can write more deeply??? The problem with depending on the traumas of the past too heavily is that you need to be sure you are not still bleeding. Otherwise, you will transmit that despair to the reader, whom you want to like you! Mary Ellen Latela

  5. Allison Davis says:

    Ken Follet said it best in the NYT: “Honestly my life story is not that interesting. I have spent the last 35 years at a desk writing novels. All the excitement is in the stories I make up. “

  6. Anne Booth says:

    I love the link ‘what infuses their writing is compassion, and the critical writing question:what if?’

    Thank you. This is a brilliant piece.

  7. Interesting post. Just as the human condition is so varied, so too are writers: some write from a sense of contentment, others from a place of sadness. Sometimes that changes over time.
    One of my favourite writers, Robin Hyge (1906-1939), endured heartbreak and appalling bereavement, and suffered with mental illness for most of her adult life. She wrote the most wonderful prose as a way of working through her difficulties. Could her art have been separated from her experiences? I don’t know. What I do know is that her writing is searing, fearless and eviscerating, and I am grateful for it.

  8. Amy Kierce says:

    I can’t agree with you more. It’s so much easier to write when our minds and hearts are not bogged down by heavy, thick emotion. Lovely piece!

  9. Martin Peltz says:

    Every time I come back from an illness or ” setback “; I feel I am a better writer for it!

  10. Ludmila Mason says:

    This does speak in volumes to me and for me. Brilliant piece

  11. Max says:

    I agree that you don’t have to be troubled to write. I don’t believe you have to be troubled to create anything. However, I do believe that the creatives in this world who have suffered become artists – in this case, write pieces of literary art. I believe this is because those who have suffered have something to say. They are driven by a vision, a message, because they have witnessed some very harsh realities that they either need to exorsise or present it to the world in the hope of helping others. I believe suffering makes you more empathetic. I’m not saying wannabe writers should seek suffering, because I think they’d be wasting their time. Plus, artists who have suffered did not choose to live a life of pain. If you have lived a happy life, be grateful that you have and please don’t beat yourself up. Trust that this artistic suffering you seek is more painful than you could ever imagine.
    Also, to me it seems that the process of creating something great is excritiating in itself. It’s sort of like a bsptism by fire. I cannot personally seperate art from suffering. If you are happy, why make art? You have already reached what everybody longs for.
    On a side noye, people whith schizophrenia/bipolar/experience psychosis are naturally more creative because of their poor mental filter. They are more imaginitive, because their brains almost works in a dream state for much of the time. But i’m generalising, and the psychology is much more complicated.
    I liked your arricle, and believe that suffering isn’t nesessary to write, but great writings, of art, are born from it.

  12. Ryann D says:

    Randy, great article! It got me thinking about the phrase that every writer is told at least one: Write what you know.

    I don’t think a writer must suffer or live an outlandishly adventurous life to have ample subject matter to pull from. The phrase “write what you know” goes deeper than its face value. It has to deal with your experiences on the emotional level. A writer needs only to pull from those moments of passion in life where they have felt any strong emotion to transform those feelings into something else.

    But I digress, you don’t have to suffer to write. Your post got me thinking, clearly 🙂

    I wrote an article of my own in response for anyone that wants to check it out.

    • Randy Kraft says:

      Oh so true, and so important to make the distinction. Too many writers think the write what you know must be write your own life. Sometimes a good idea, but more so the passion and pain and experience that infuses writing. Thanks.

  13. When I was a teen, I thought “Write What You Know” meant I should go out and experience many things. While that’s true, I’m glad I didn’t take it too far. Depression and alcoholism run in both sides of my family. I have the first but not the second. Only now I can understand what others here have said. Instability might inspire some writing, but chaos is a bad environment for the editing process.

    • Randy Kraft says:

      Exactly. Donna Tartt said recently that the writer spends her days daydreaming. So true – our imaginations are what brings fiction to life. As for non-fiction, especially memoir, which relies by definition on experience, terribly important to step back and write it, not relive it. Writing as therapy can be bad for the writing, I think.

      • I would respectfully disagree re therapy. I told my therapist that the pain of my depression was interfering with my writing. She said to me, “If your pain is getting in the way of your writing, maybe you need to make room in your writing for your pain.” Some of the best advice I’ve ever received.

      • So what about writing a painful memoir? I’m doing that now. I must relive my old hurts and feel them to be able to convey how I was feeling at the time.

  14. “One does not have to perpetually suffer to write, or to create any art form.”

    Yes and AMEN to that. I think this society is addicted to struggle and stress. So, when something comes easily or naturally, that is a HUGE problem. I’ve resolved to enjoy writing and the writing process. Struggle is not necessary. At least not in my world.

    Awesome Article!

    • Randy Kraft says:

      Addicted, yes. When I was a girl, I thought if something wasn’t hard it wasn’t good. Never occurred to me I might be talented or smart. Funny how we adopt that sort of thinking early on, especially when we feel we have to rise to very high standards. Now the more challenging, the more exhilarating, the more rewarding, and that’s about achieving personal best, not the struggle. Appreciate the endorsement of one so young. Cheers.

  15. Jo Carroll says:

    Oh how I agree. Most lives have ups and downs, and we draw on the tough times to help us think about difficult feelings, but I find it much more of a struggle to write clearly when my head is full of other stuff.

  16. Lori Schafer says:

    Like many writers, I began at an early age, during a fairly normal childhood. Then I had a boatload of trauma in my adolescence and early adulthood. Did it make me a better writer? Nope. In fact, it may have been the reason why I stopped writing altogether. It was only a couple of years ago, when my life at last became stable, that I started writing again. I guess different people are inspired by different things, but I agree with you, Randy, problems don’t produce creativity, and can even inhibit it.

  17. K. A. Laity says:

    I think a lot of young writers and artists are undone by the need to live the wild lives they’ve read about — but if you’re spending all your time carousing it leaves little time to work. I have been most productive since my life has quieted. We need to be drunk on our words and stories, as Ray Bradbury says, and be as wild as we can imagine.

  18. Annecdotist says:

    Nicely put, Randy. it’s reassuring to assume we can transform our bad times into brilliant prose, but I agree there is a need for a certain distance. While stability may not be necessary for the initial outpouring, it certainly needed for the disciplined editing to get the work into a form that others are going to want to read it.

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