Do you have to suffer to be a good writer?

“What do you have to write about? You’re not oppressed. You’re not gay.”

  • Bud Brumder, Orange County.

It’s a long debated question: do you have to suffer in order to be a good writer (or any kind of artist for that matter)? I think the answer to that question is “not necessarily”. Certainly if you have suffered, you have something to write about. But obviously suffering is relative. Anything I have suffered in life is nothing compared with, say, what the Jews suffered under the Nazis in World War II – or what Christians are presently suffering in Iraq (I’m still reeling from an article I just read about Christian children supposedly being beheaded out there).

I think the important thing for a writer to have is experience, rather than suffering per se. I wrote about religious cults in my novel Children of the Folded Valley because I have experienced them. Some of that experience might be termed suffering, but not necessarily all of it.

Folded Valley cover

Furthermore, it is important to emphasise that what I experienced does not necessarily appear in the novel at all. Indeed, it should be obvious that most of what the novel contains is nothing more than science fiction. But writing a novel based on experience isn’t always about conveying the factual veracity of true events – at least, not for me. Writing Children of the Folded Valley was about conveying how religious oppression feels, but within a science fiction backdrop containing all manner of exaggerations and outrageous situations necessary for the needed dramatic impact.

In a similar way, the battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings ring are informed by Tolkien’s experiences fighting in World War I. Obviously The Lord of the Rings is not a factual story, but the experience Tolkien brings to the writing makes an already masterful piece of work even more resonant.

Wars and religious cults may be negative things to have experience of, but plenty of authors write of good experiences they have had, and their work is enjoyed by millions. Sticking with Tolkien for a moment, the Aragorn/Arwen romance in The Lord of the Rings very much mirrors how he met his own wife Edith. Again it appears experience rather than suffering is the key thing here.

Having two children eventually led me to write Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge and Uncle Flynn. The latter was inspired in part by a news report I saw about mollycoddled children, but mostly by the endless walks I have taken on Dartmoor with my eldest son. That can hardly be described as suffering.

Then again, Harry Lime, as brilliantly depicted by Orson Welles in The Third Man, obviously disagrees with me.

“In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love. They had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The Cuckoo Clock.”

  • Harry Lime, The Third Man.
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