Tidal wave of debt? Romance or marriage wrecked? Illness; mortal loss? Got fired? Family plunged into shocking dysfunction? Swan-diving into the abyss?
Sorry: I truly do not mean here to make light of anyone’s problems, or disrespect their burden. But—if I may—there’s always one true thing, for the writer, about outrageous fortune.
It’s handing you some potentially spectacular material.
Now, most of us aren’t such irretrievable vampires that we move straight from agony to ecstasy in contemplating the use of misery while it is happening. But sometimes just the faint awareness (in the most electrocutingly painful moments) that we may later be able to make use of what is presently striking us as a five-alarm nightmare—consoles.
That consolation counts for a lot, all by itself. It brings a breath of relief, of steadying. It helps us feel we’ve got a better grip on any kind of sanity, even in the midst of the worst.
But then comes the jackpot. You someday find yourself actually (and this is often completely un-preplanned, even unconscious) dipping into the bitter experience, fitting some part of it perfectly into the story or novel or essay to hand.
And then much of the earlier agony takes a backseat to a remarkable satisfaction:
Getting it right.
What is more—the work will have authority. No one’s going to argue with the unmistakable weight and substance of first-hand knowledge.
(This presumes of course that you’re an able writer, and that you’ll have given the written experience its necessary transfiguration. Nothing we write straight from life, no matter how fresh, will have gravitas and resonance—it can’t persuade—until we give it what it needs to exist as a dimensional motion inside the dream of the writing. That takes patience, attention, imagination. And it’s also another discussion.)
The main thing to keep in mind early on—to survive, and find a way through it—is to remember that the very worst of times, if nothing else on earth, can feed the well. It’ll show up someday, when you didn’t even know you were reaching for it. And whatever larger work it’s finally folded into will teach you, and others, something neither you—nor they—had previously understood.
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.