Sunny Side Up
On the long road of the writing life, you’re going to encounter a lot of clichés—people are going to foist them upon you (“English major? What’re you gonna do with that?”), you’re going to meet a lot of them at parties (Dude with the black turtleneck and vinyl record collection, you need a makeover), and you may even fall into a few yourself (when you see yourself typing “like a kid in a candy store,” step away from the computer).
One of the most prevalent clichés about writers is that they are unhappy: clinically depressed, alcoholic, having suffered abusive parents or some other sort of physical or psychological maiming. They are damaged in some critical way.
And it’s true that an unfortunate number of very famous and very talented writers have been unhappy to the point of being suicidal: Sylvia Plath, Earnest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton, Raymond Carver, Daphne Merkin, and so on. These writers and their various unhappinesses are so famous, and have formed such a long-running pattern, that people have begun to assume that in order to be a writer, you must be deeply unhappy in some critical way.
Even I drank that kool-aid. For a long time, especially in my younger writing years, I actually got insulted when people called me “sunny.” But sunny I was. I tended to smile more than frown, I didn’t even really understand cynicism until my mid-twenties after three years of living in New York, and I was always looking for ways to cheer up my friends when they were feeling down.
I once worked for a famously depressed writer, who actually kind of sneered when she told me I was “sunny.” She tried to make it sound like it was a good thing, but all I heard was “sunny kids don’t become writers. You cannot be part of the club.”
I’m here to tell you otherwise. I’m here to tell you that no matter who you are—happy, unhappy, morbid, optimistic, cynical, or blissful—you can be a writer. Even a great writer. The important thing is that you have a healthy respect for the emotional life of others—so much respect that you are capable of crawling inside their heads and being them for a while, feeling what they feel, and reacting as they would react. In other words, the important thing is that you have empathy.
Bottom line: Be yourself. Don’t worry about anything that anyone else expects you to be. The more fully you can live and enjoy your own life, the more energy you’ll have to use on your writing.
Important Post-Script: If you are a young writer who happens to be deeply unhappy, please know that it’s critically important that you get the help you need and deserve. If you are depressed, you might want to check out Francisco Stork’s excellent essay on the subject at YARN, and please also talk to a trusted adult/parent/teacher-type who can help you get the appropriate medical attention. If you are in another kind of trouble (perhaps drugs, abuse, or bullying), I recommend YA writer Margie Gelbwasser’s excellent list of resources, as well as her smart novels. In my book, I quote SARK: “You are rare and wonderous.” No matter who you are, or what your background or problems may be, you deserve to feel that way.