A turbulent life: asset or liability for the novelist?

A stressful few months have left me pondering whether a life beset by problems is useful for the novelist or whether what he or she needs is a tranquil, trouble-free existence safe from the intrusion of any disrupting influences. Do heartbreak and suffering in the author’s life make it easier to empathise with their protagonists, providing interesting experiences to draw on, or do these merely distract from the writing process? Isn’t writing a novel a difficult enough task without the interference of personal conflicts and dramas that demand to be dealt with?

Dickens had a hard childhood and a complicated domestic life, having married, only to become infatuated with his wife’s sister, who died not long after. Twenty-two years later, he left his wife and ten children for his much younger mistress. None of this seemed to hamper his creativity. With such a large family to support, he had to keep writing. Poverty was and still is a driving force for writers who need to sell books to survive. J K Rowling was a single mother on benefit until she made it big with her Harry Potter stories.

Many famous novelists (along with a great number of poets) were known to have been depressives: Mark Twain, Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf among them. Alcoholism and mental illness are far from rare in writers. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, was an alcoholic, his marriage with Zelda notably stormy. Hardy too had a difficult relationship with his wife Emma. As a shy and secretive man, writing served as a catharsis for him, an outlet for his grief and mental torment. His emotional state was reflected in his novels. Because he drew on his own life for material, the later works tend to be sadder than those written earlier in his career.

The Bronte sisters had seclusion aplenty in childhood but their lives were plagued by ill health and far from easy. Charlotte Bronte, the last surviving child of Patrick and Maria, suffered one family bereavement after another, losing her mother from cancer and one by one, her brother and each of her sisters, who all died in their thirties from TB or other illnesses. She also knew the heartache of romantic disappointment, having suffered unrequited love for her teacher in Brussels. Writing provided some solace for all these losses but she herself died at 38, not long married and in the early stages of pregnancy. George Eliot led a somewhat happier life but as a woman with unconventional beliefs and lifestyle, she certainly didn’t have it easy.

Tolstoy, on the other hand, was at his most creative and successful in a period of his life that was also the happiest and calmest – during the first ten years of his marriage. Many of the characters in War and Peace were based on family members, friends and acquaintances and his novels contained a great deal of biographical material drawn from the detailed journals he kept.

Love can be inspiring. In my experience, a good relationship gives enormous creative energy. A bad one saps your energy and kills creativity. Rejection, anger, jealousy, grief can have a crippling effect. Alternatively, they may help you empathise with your fictional characters. After all, the basic human emotions are universal. It may be a matter of timing. The difficult or challenging times should, ideally, come between novels, not when you’re in the thick of writing them, when they are indeed a huge distraction. However, writing can also provide a welcome escape from your problems. If you can cross that threshold into the fictional world you have created and become absorbed in it, life’s troubles can be forgotten for hours at a time.

Those who lead solitary lives – lighthouse keepers or national park rangers, for example – often turn to writing. Solitude gives space to the imagination and a rich inner life may be just as stimulating to creativity as the constant hustle and bustle of the world most of us live in. The popularity of writing retreats attests to the importance of time spent alone.

Among the reviews of Secrets of the Pomegranate, the comment that pleased me most was ‘This is a writer who understands people’. Perhaps if my experience had been confined to one happy, stable marriage with emotional and financial security, few challenges or setbacks, the urge to write would have been less strong. Although I feel extremely fortunate in most ways, my life has had its share of ups and downs. If I hadn’t known the anguish of a miscarriage, the stress of divorce, the sadness of losing the love of my life, the trauma of going deaf, my writing would have lacked that understanding. Even in fiction, I am writing from the heart.

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