Sunday, March 16, 2014

Happiness Is...

Is It Harder to Write About Happiness Than Its Opposite? -

A recent New York Times Sunday Book Review article posited the question:  Is it harder to write about happiness than its opposite?

The link to the article is above and it's well worth reading for those who love to write, or read, for that matter.

The question has dogged me as a writer, as it does all of us who dare to presume we have something worth sharing.  This particular issue is important to me, because I believe it is part of what draws me to short stories.  As writers, we ask our readers to invest their most precious commodity: their time.  More time, surely, than it takes to watch a movie, more time than it takes to decide whether a particular television series is worth the effort, or to tour a museum exhibit.  Pharrell Williams can keep us "Happy" for  three and a half minutes, but across the expanse of a voluminous novel, it's a very different terrain.  We essentially place a heavy tome in the reader's hands and say, "give these 300+ pages a whirl," which is tantamount to "relinquish a few days or weeks of your life to my characters, their lives, and ultimately, their outcomes."  

Short stories give me a certain permission to take characters down roads that might ultimately end at a less than happy destination without costing the reader more than an hour or so of their time.  If the journey is compelling, the outcome is more than forgivable.  I've found it's appreciated.

The article asks if happiness is more of a copout than a conceit, a pandering way to sooth the reader into believing that life, somehow, will have a happy ending.  Certainly, there are books that wallow in the deceitful ennui of measured bliss, and others that take the protagonist through treacherous climes only to shift into deus ex machina mode in the final chapters to ensure that they are ultimately unscathed.  This kind of "happiness," I would argue, is somewhat pat, and plays out in the same way any Jennifer Anniston rom-com would:  we know how it's gonna end - sappily, with a more self-actualized heroine, and the assurance of a particular brand of hope.

Then there's the happiness that the audience truly has to work for.  The one that promises nothing beyond a slim reed that, should our protagonist choose wisely, things might (perhaps) turn out alright, for awhile.  No guarantees, no assurances...just the well-earned gritty resolve of the moment, a moment called "Now" in which the hero (and the reader) experience a different brand of hope.  Not the kind we dream of, but the kind we live with.  I feel this is the more honest and lasting representation of happiness.  Both forms have their place, but the one that makes my eyes well up with tears, the one that pulls at something intangible in my chest, is the fleeting hope that we grab onto and ride out to its end like a shooting star.

That's the happiness I like to write about: the brief redemptions, the momentary sparks of wakefulness, the clear and clean breaths amid the choking smog.  I don't know what this says about me, as a writer or as a person.  The "nowness" of it all is very Buddhist, I guess.  Mostly, I believe that happiness comes from having a keen awareness of the other extremes:  the gloom, the anger, the fear that exists and is very real for most people.  Happiness is not the absence of these emotions, but the ability to coexist alongside them in a way that keeps them - on good days - on a leash.  As a writer, the fun begins when one or more of them break free and start wreaking havoc.  Because in the end, we want to find a way to restore that coexistence.  How we get there - on the page and in life - says a lot about how happiness informs the plot in our own personal stories.

So, what do you think?  Is happiness harder to write about or read?  What form does happiness take for you in good storytelling?

Again, here's the link to an insightful pair of essays on the topic:  Is It Harder to Write About Happiness Than Its Opposite? -

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