Loss and Creativity

Last night, Dusk Peterson sent me a paragraph by Robert Silverberg about his “growing up” as a writer after a major loss to fire. While my apartment didn’t burn, the smoke and other damage was extensive enough that I lost a good 2/3 or more of my possessions, not even counting all the furniture. Unlike Silverberg’s loss, a great deal of my research and all of my drafts of finished and unfinished work was on my computer, which I did save, or in the cloud. Still, that kind of loss changes you in ways you can’t anticipate, or even understand until you’ve had time to absorb it and be able to look back at it objectively.

“I was never the same again. Until the night of the fire I had never, except perhaps at the onset of my illness in 1966, been touched by the real anguish of life. I had not known divorce or the death of loved ones or poverty or unemployment, I had never experienced the challenges and terrors of parenthood, had never been mugged or assaulted or molested, had not been in military service (let alone actual warfare), had never been seriously ill. The only emotional scars I bore were those of a moderately unhappy childhood, hardly an unusual experience. But now I had literally passed through the flames. The fire and certain more personal upheavals some months earlier had marked an end to my apparent immunity to life’s pain, and drained from me, evidently forever, much of the bizarre energy that had allowed me to write a dozen or more books of high quality in a single year. Until 1967, I had cockily written everything in one draft, rolling white paper into the machine and typing merrily away, turning out twenty or thirty pages of final copy every day and making only minor corrections by hand afterwards. When I resumed work after the fire I tried to go on that way, but I found the going slow, found myself fumbling for words and losing the thread of narrative, found it necessary in mid-page to halt and start over, pausing often to regain my strength. It has been slower and slower ever since, and I have only rarely, and not for a long time now, felt that dynamic sense of clear vision that enabled me to write even the most taxing of my books in wild joyous spurts. I wasted thousands of sheets of paper over the next three years before I came to see, at last, that I had become as other mortals and would have to do two or three or even ten drafts of every page before I could hope to type final copy. . . .”

Which got me to thinking. We all know that old saw about writing what you know. Never been a policeman? Then you shouldn’t create a character who’s a policeman. Nonsense, of course. We know that’s what research is for. But there is a way in which the saw is true, and Silverberg brought that out for me. Writers do need emotional experience, because that’s something you can’t research. If you haven’t experienced pain or loss, you’re not going to be able to write about it convincingly.

And that’s where many young writers fall down. Note that Silverberg listed all the things he hadn’t experienced, along with the emotions that would have accompanied them. Possibly, losing so much in a fire hit him harder than it might have because it was his first traumatic experience and he had no experienced emotional response to fall back on. Possibly. I remember reading that Aldous Huxley had a similar loss and simply walked away from it. But people also vary in their vulnerability and their ability to adapt, so that’s not necessarily a valid comparison.

After a traumatic dry spell of more than three months, I’m at work again. I’m continuing the revision of an almost-finished novel, and also preparing to write a completely new one next month. Right now, I feel that I’m back to my usual form. That may be accurate or premature. Only time will tell.


3 thoughts on “Loss and Creativity

  1. Some young people have enough drama in their teen years or childhood for a lifetime of writing; others have a relatively easy time of it. But there are still smaller losses, inevitably – I think it takes time and experience of how to USE that for dramatic purposes, and an experienced WRITER can take a small loss and use it to write about LOSS.

    Which is why there are few stories from writing prodigies, and those that exist tend to come from a single kind of traumatic experience.

    Humans, if they survive, are generalists – they need to learn to cope, as adults, with all kinds of things from death to taxes. Once writers get the idea, they can do what actors do, and take something roughly similar but with a much smaller scale (the time Fluffy got lost when they took the dog on a camping trip) and parlay that into writing about the kingdom’s lost dragon.

    You had a huge loss – a fire is a random destruction of so many things. I haven’t experienced one, and my imagination will probably not do a good job, certainly not compared with yours. I think about such things – and pray they never happen. Mostly because I am completely behind on digitizing and putting things in order – since I’ve been ill for 27 years, things have gotten a bit behind. I TOOK the pictures – but they’re still sitting in boxes. I can’t imagine how I’d react if I lost them before I got to put them into files I can share with the kids in them.

    1. I’d also read that about writing prodigies, that they mostly turn out to be a flash in the pan. They don’t have the experience, or the maturity to make use of what experience does come their way.

      My Australian friend suggested, in response to my continued inability to start writing again, that I was suffering from PTSD. That never would have occured to me, and even though it was really very mild, acknowledging that I had been through a traumatic experience helped me get back on my feet emotionally.

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