“You write out of need. You write out of hunger.  It isn’t your brilliance; it’s the flaw in your makeup that drives you.”—from an interview with novelist Theodore Wessner in Novel Ideas: Contemporary Authors Share the Creative Process by Barbara Shoup and Margaret-Love Denman

Weesner goes on:

In terms of identifying talent in young writers, you can see the pain in their writing. You can see the desire, the hunger. It doesn’t have anything to do with how well they’re doing as students. At UNH, I taught English majors who were pretentious writers. They’d often write in the style of literary criticism—imitating literary criticism, trying to write what they thought a critic would be looking for. Then some kid would walk in from Engineering and just go for it, because he would have been drawn there by hunger, have a sense of the story he wanted to tell.


My own strategy and the thing I advise students to do is to identify things that hurt, that caused pain enough to make you change how you perceive the world. When did it hurt? What made it hurt? Who were the people involved? It can be a modest hurt; it can be a big hurt. A very personal hurt, private, secret. Once you can do that, you can begin to try to create and recreate a story through characters and action.


  • Dave says:

    Richard, regarding pain as a source of writing, this morning I underlined two sentences in “Cutting the Stone” by Abraham Verghese. Early in the book the narrator says,”We are all fixing what is broken. It is the task of a lifetime.” Hmmm.

    • That’s an interesting way to frame the issue. After I uploaded this I read your new post on the painter compelled to depict suffering. As Dylan sang in one of his more recent songs, “Behind everything beautiful there’s been some kind of pain.” Currently I don’t think that it has to be personal, or mostly personal, in the sense of great childhood trauma like Dickens suffered. At least that’s what I hope! But I also think it’s relative. Everyone suffers, and someone else’s pain can look trivial or it can look impossible to bear, compared to one’s own. I’ve seen this in the things students write about. One’s own pain can be a source of empathy, I think. Surely art would not work for creator or audience if humans did not share that.

  • Sigrun says:

    An interesting statement – and a very thought provoking quote from Dave: ”We are all fixing what is broken. It is the task of a lifetime.”
    Working with one’s own pain is a very difficult business, and in my view: not to be romanticized! In many ways I would say that I write to get away from my own personal pain, writing is trying to escape … (a task of a lifetime…)

  • Sigrun says:

    Reblogged this on sub rosa and commented:
    writing to escape…

  • Richard Moore says:

    I loved that quote from Verghese. When I first began CNF it was clear that many had gravitated to memoir precisely because they had something to exorcise, to seek meaning. Many, maybe most, times some variety of hurt.

    But, that is only part of the CNF picture. Seems to me that those who write personal essays are enamored of ideas, of cognitive or experiential urgings quite different from the motivations of memoir writers. E.g, Montaigne, Joseph Epstein, Tanizaki. These, too, allow the reader to see the world in a different way.

    • Good point, Richard. I think this is behind some of the ire among reviewers of the stream of memoirs of dysfunction. But then I think of how Jeannette Walls is building a regular writing career after The Glass Castle, the not very reflective but highly scenic memoir of her epically dysfunctional family. She’s a writer, too, after all.

      And I also think this quote really is kind of directed at fiction writers.

      A great book-length essay on the relationship of art to suffering is The Wound and the Bow by Edmund Wilson. I have read it carefully, however, and cannot say his conclusion is real clear.

      By the way, I like the sense of this quote but feel he comes off, unintentionally, as not very nice to students. I always hated John Ciardi for his poem putting down students . . . for not being adults. OTOH, I had a friend whose son, an engineering major, DID win a big short story contest at the University of Michigan. Alas, writing talent is common.

  • shirleyhs says:

    Because of the Wessner idea above, for a long time I have struggled with the “problem” of having had a happy childhood as I set out to write memoir.

    My pains have that problem of relativity: they can’t compete with the stories of abuse, etc. Yet no life is released from the burden of pain. My baby sister died when I was six and she was just 39 days. My father fought with his father over the sale of the farm.I felt excluded by my Mennonite dress and prohibitions while mostly enjoying my public schooling. How to avoid self-pity for petty hurts just to prove you’ve suffered too?

    Clearly we must avoid comparisons with other pains; though readers may likely compare in ways we can’t control.

    For me the secret must be in making the little moments of ecstasy real without making them saccharine.Ironically, the mission to heal could well be in sharing the true nature of joy, which can only be reached by one who has experienced pain. Does this make sense?

    • It does make sense, Shirley. My wife had a similar reaction: what about joy? Writers may be well served to underplay the pain; as you note, readers will fill in. You don’t have to do much with how you felt different or were teased for readers to get it. Maybe readers don’t buy extremes on either end? I am now reading the sunniest memoir, A Girl Named Zippy, and so far find it somewhat like a movie comedy as a result, not a drama. That is, not a fully rounded memoir. But I will see, and it is charming.

      I think of a girl I knew years ago who was deeply pained because her father, a good and loving man, didn’t go to church with her family. The girl’s pain was very real, but, after what I’d read and my greater experience of life, she seemed very fortunate. Ditto for a girl whose big crisis was changing high schools because her parents kind of wanted her to go to theirs. It seems to me that both girls suffered, truly, but in writing about their pain it would best work as a portrait of themselves then—both obviously were very sensitive—with some older perspective as buffering. When a writer avoids or is unable to do the latter, some readers and certainly critics are going to be upset, because it’s like still crying over the toy you broke when you were three. We understand that pain, of course, but what is one’s considered view?

      This is slippery and complicated, though, and I sound like I know what I am talking about when I don’t. I am struggling with this issue in my memoir concerning my character “then” and what he knew or didn’t and my character “now” of the writer at his desk providing perspective. This has been the hardest issue, especially in an event-driven, scenic narrative. Harry Crews does it in A Childhood and Annie Dillard does it in An American Childhood, from slightly more the adult’s perspective. See my brief excerpt that just appeared, and more to come.

      • P.S.-Shirley, a superb recent British film about a happy character is Happy Go Lucky, and I highly recommend it. This is a young woman who by nature is just so happy, but she has to deal with others who are not, of course, including some of her own students. It is really special.

  • Note: I am posting this on behalf of Paulette Bates Alden, who tried to submit it twice and got rejected by WordPress–the second person I’ve heard from who has had that problem in the last 24 hours. Here is what Paulette said:

    “Something about Wessner’s advice made me uneasy. I agree that some of the best writing comes out of pain, and often it’s pain that drives people to be writers. But there are students/writers who haven’t had a traumatic or painful experience, and who would be lost trying to follow this dictum. I’m thinking, for example, of Patricia Hampl or Annie Dillard (and thanks, Shirley, for your thoughts on this subject). I think one thing we can help student with is finding their true subject matter (which can take a long time). And some people just have a comic sensibility for which writing about pain is off base. Or they approach their hurts at a slant, with humor or satire. Wessner is right that often writing about pain can bring out a student’s best writing. But not always….”

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