What are the qualifications a writer needs to have in order to write about a given subject? To write about abuse, do you need to have been abused? To write about addiction, do you have to be an addict? To write about oppression or poverty, do you have to belong to a marginalized group?
I’m finally watching Breaking Bad––inexcusably late to the party, I know––and over Labor Day weekend, I watched the scene at the beginning of season three in which Jesse is sitting around a campfire with a group of other patients and a counselor at a rehab clinic in the middle of the desert. His girlfriend has just died, partly because of his own negligence, and he’s got more killings to his name besides. More than a little nauseated by all the self-acceptance mantras being foisted upon him, he asks the counselor point-blank, “You ever really hurt anybody? I don’t just mean disappointed your mom or whatever. Did you ever really hurt someone?”
And the therapist answers with no hesitation at all, “I killed my daughter.”
It’s a powerful moment, because we fully expect a different answer. The fact that the counselor has been through great darkness of his own seems to give him an authority to speak to others about their darkness, an authority others would lack. The implication is that experience is a prerequisite of authoritative speech.
Well, full disclosure, I’ve never killed anyone, and with the exception of the culpability I share with all voting-age Americans, have hurt relatively few people, nor have they hurt me. Life has been pretty easy so far. That poses something of a problem for me as a writer because stories have to have conflict, and it’s one of my shortcomings that I find interior crisis narratives, with the exception of what I’ve read by Woolf and Joyce, incredibly boring. Like the spectators at the Cribbage Match in Wizard People, Dear Reader, apparently I need blood splattered across my face to keep from yawning.
A mental survey of stories I’ve written produces a catalogue of tragedies––suicide, miscarriage, gangrene, war, hallucinations, botched abortions, murder, vivisection, ecological catastrophe, the death of the sun––none of which, let’s be clear, do I have any personal experience with. I feel a lot like Nick Cave, who in a profile for The New York Times Magazine this summer confronted the same mismatch between his autobiography and his subject matter: “Nothing happened in my childhood––no trauma or anything. I just had a genetic disposition toward things that were horrible.”
So what right do people like us have to write about suffering, and if we do have a right, what authority can we bring to the task?
A couple things come to mind.
First is that those of us who are privileged enough to be white, male, and reasonably comfortable have a moral obligation to advocate in our writing for those who don’t enjoy those accidental privileges. That means reaching into the grab-bag of modern-day atrocities social, environmental, and political, pulling one out and writing about it. We have to draw attention to what’s wrong, both the small and the large, the interior and the exterior, critique it, and if we have a genuine answer, suggest it humbly.
Second, no one has a monopoly on suffering.
Suffering differs in kind and degree, but to some extent at least, everyone suffers. I’ve never been tortured, but I’ve been through surgery. I’m not an alcoholic, but I know what a hangover feels like. I’ve never been divorced or lost a close friend, but I know what it’s like to jerk back from a mirror in surprise because the hour I spent crying has caused a blood vessel under my eye to burst. The fact is that every human being has access to the same palette of human emotions, and fiction, like painting, can make almost anything out of them.
There’s a song by The Pogues I think is relevant here. The language is cryptic, but it seems to sketch a story about an encounter in a bar late at night when the boundaries of time and personality slip momentarily. The singer finds himself in a conversation with an old war veteran, both of them “drunk to hell,” as the lyrics have it, and the old veteran tells the singer a story about waking up on a battlefield covered in blood and surrounded by a jumble of body parts, and in the midst of that horror how he received a vision of a brown-eyed angel hovering over him, a vision that gives him the strength to survive. Later that night, as the singer stumbles home to his empty apartment, he catches a glimpse of what might be that same vision, of a pair of brown eyes looking down on him, and he feels some of that same solace, a sense that a benevolent spirit, maybe God, is watching him and taking pity on his misery. The song suggests that this benevolence is impartial, that it flows out toward all humanity regardless of whether those wounds, like the veteran’s, have been dealt by the cruelty of others or whether, like the incontinent, alcoholic singer’s, they are self-inflicted. It suggests that suffering, like a mother tongue, binds people who might otherwise have little to say to each other. It suggests the possibility of empathy.
The music video has nothing to do with any of this, but it’s a great song. Here’s a link.
Andrew Steiner (’12) is a Grand Rapids native. He’s a fiction writer with a day job at Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank. You can also find him working part-time for Ham Family Farm, pulling weeds, planting seeds, and slinging produce at the Fulton Street Farmers Market.