Thursday, February 5, 2009

Being Comfortable

It's bad to be too comfortable, if you're a writer. And I think I mean all kinds of comfortable: financially comfortable, physically comfortable, and comfortable with yourself and your ideas.

Financially comfortable: Inherited money is probably worse than earned money, but both are bad if you can look at bag of groceries you just bought and not think, Hot damn, safe for another week! If you take survival for granted, if there's no possibility of your living in your car next year, you're too comfortable, and your work will show it. It will feel unnecessary.

Physically comfortable: You should never be so comfortable that you can't feel your body. Your chair must be hard, or the room too cold, or there should be a draft. Your desk should be too small. Your work should reflect the truth that you, too, are a physical being forced to exist in a world that has little interest in accommodating you.

Comfortable ideas: If your ideas are comfortable, they're undoubtedly wrong.

Anyway, I started thinking about this after reading a blog post about a young writer who lives with his or her parents. Perhaps things are different in the childhood home of that writer, but as much as I love my parents and enjoy visiting them, I have never been able to write in their house. It's too warm, there's too much food in the fridge, and the carpets are too soft.

Recently I've begun to worry that I'm recreating that kind of comfort in my own house, now. We have numerous rugs on the floors, and a newish couch that doesn't have springs poking out of it. My desk chair came from an office supply store instead of a pile a on street corner, and it feels pretty good to sit in. But what do you expect, I'm a grown-up now and I shouldn't have to pretend to be some kind of desert acetic anymore. Still, I'm pretty sure that too much sitting in a comfy chair will produce those comfy, and wrong, ideas.

Then again, maybe being uncomfortable about being comfortable is enough discomfort. You think?

20 comments:

rachel said...

Aren't writers miserable enough just by virtue of being committed to such a fickle career? Do we really need to add physical discomfort to our lot?

Luckily I will never have the problem of being too comfortable, because my feet are inevitably too cold, unless I pile on enough blankets that they're not cold, and then I'm too warm all over. I've got a perfectly uncomfortable imbalance going on.

zoe said...

rhian, I think having children causes an ongoing amount of dicomfort because your time is not your own. I think if you have all the time in the world, your writing might suffer from a kind of luxury of time where you might procrastinate or focus on trivialities. There's nothing like the end of the school day or the sound of little feet heading towards you to focus the mind.

Well, I feel that anyway.

bloglily said...

Hmm. I think you should just go with the comforts you have! If you really want to write, you'll find the stuff that makes you uneasy without having the bad chair to distract you. I feel lucky to have the comforts I do, which mostly make me think it's uncool to not do the work I want to do, or complain about a single thing that's not quite right in my life.

And I would also like to say that I deeply regret the many times I have mispelled your name, Rhian. xo

rmellis said...

No, I definitely don't agree. Comfort leads to complacency. It's a big, mushy mattress between you and reality!

Destroy the air conditioners!

Oh, I didn't even notice that you spelled my name wrong, lily -- no worries!

Anonymous said...

I think this is an excellent, but answerable, question.

From my perspective as a much-more-financially-comfortable-than-average person (a physician), I sometimes wonder whether I would feel more driven to write, to produce, to become published if I had a greater material incentive to do so. Sure, I can find misery from a failed romance in my past or my dreams that went unfulfilled. But that's different from needing to write to have the prospect--however unlikely--of buying a car or getting health insurance or moving out of my parents' basement.

Maybe the real answer is that good authors make the most of what they have to work with, whether it's poverty or affluence. MacKenzie Bezos wrote a terrific first novel, The Testing of Luther Albright. She didn't let the fact that her husband is Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, get in her way.

jrlennon said...

I agree with Rhian that too much comfort is bad for your work. But there are different kinds of comfort. The dissonance can come from inside...if you're well-heeled, it doesn't necessarily mean you're out of luck, artistically. Abject poverty, of course, if a much more powerful force against the creation of art than affluence is.

I feel very strongly that anxiety is a great motivator for me...it's both my main problem in life, and the thing that sustains me. Even if we hit the jackpot someday (c'mon, Hollywood!), I trust that I'll still be a wreck half of the time.

Pale Ramón said...

Not reading your reviews is as good a prophylactic as any I can think of at the moment.

Do the so-called "creature comforts" really make a difference? I think not. How opulent a lifestyle can an author make for him- or herself? Worrying about having to pay the bills is enough to torpedo any project.

Then again, we could all follow Haze Motes' example and put broken glass in our shoes and string barbed wire around our torsos before we sit down to write.

rmellis said...

I think the effect is subtle, but cumulative. You get used to your comforts, and think they're important and necessary.

Obviously too much stress and discomfort destroys artmaking. But so does too little, imho. You need to stay awake, alert, yearning, dissatisfied.

Mark said...

Some of the most miserably uncomfortable people I know are rich, and, as JRL points out, grinding discomfort is no place to write from. As David Lynch puts it, "If Van Gogh has terrible diarrhea and can't leave the bathroom, he can't paint." Or something like that. I'm misquoting him a little.

Someone who's never known serious discomfort probably can't be trusted, is maybe how I'd put it. And the historically unprecedented comfort of post-WWII American and Western European citizens does seem a problem for art, broadly speaking.

jrlennon said...

I think Mark is right on the money here...discomfort is necessary for art to be any good, but there are a lot of places it can come from.

Zachary Cole said...

Exactly. Bagging groceries can be a source of discomfort. So can being appointed as the nation's next Treasury Secretary. There's enough room for both tales, I hope.

jrlennon said...

After today, the latter may soon be re-employed as the former.

Zachary Cole said...

Oh snap!

Anonymous said...

I'm troubled by the prevailing notion in the literary world that all "good art" must stem from suffering, from despair, from dissatisfaction. Can't writing be a celebratory art? Music and dance are both capable of energizing people, exciting people, and connecting them through appreciation of the beauty and joy that is as inherent to life as anxiety and loss. The idea that all writers are necessarily nihilistic Sylvia Plaths, devoid of any vitality, uncomfortable, and isolated is limiting and false. Posts like this perpetuate the idea that writers and artists must suffer brutally in order to create anything "true". I don't deny that anxiety and discomfort are useful emotions for a writer, but I think it's incredibly narrow to claim that they are the sole emotional triggers for "art". Maybe literary writing would have more readers if it sought to expand the emotional base it works from.

I realize that this is a very nuanced issue, and you guys, as writers, surely understand that. I'm just sick of the stereotype that all writers are miserable, and must perpetuate that misery if they're going to create anything worthwhile...

zoe said...

I think it's less that writers are miserable, writing about miserable issues and more that literary fiction deals with the "big" issues, such as death, love, etc.

I don't think Rhian's saying that we have to be nihilistic as writers, but that we need to have a keen sense of life's difficulties. These difficulties could be an understanding of what it's like to have lost someone, or have a difficult financial situation or whatever. That doesn't mean that good writing has to be doom-laden and certainly doesn't mean it has to be lacking in vitality. I'd argue that The Bell Jar (because you mentioned Plath) is actually very vital and ultimately life-confirming.

I hear what you're saying about broadening the readership of fiction by writing about more cheery subjects, but that's why there's areas such as chick lit (for want of a better term) and other lighter sides of fiction.

I think that people that like literary fiction generally want to read about complex, often times difficult aspects of existence. But that deosn't mean it has to be unremittingly grim. Maybe just thoughtful.

rmellis said...

First, Anonymous, I'm not talking about suffering. I'm talking about physical and mental complacency -- a kind of comfort that leads to muffled senses and emotions. Happiness and joy are not complacent, and I would never argue that misery and suffering creates more, or more legitimate, art.

Secondly, the idea that people don't read much literary fiction because it's emotionally narrow, or too miserablist, is just baseless. Anyone who's watched a bunch of Hollywood movies lately would know that torture, suffering, and nihilism are actually real crowd pleasers.

If people don't read enough (and that's debatable) it's hardly because writers and publishers are out of touch with their public. If anything we're too in touch, too desperate to give readers what they want, and we err on the side of the proven success and the predictable.

rmellis said...

Zoe -- thanks, well put!

JWOOD said...

Only a comfortable person would seriously consider the importance of comfort or discomfort

rmellis said...

Got me!

jrlennon said...

I don't think either of us said anything about suffering or despair, anonymous. For my part, I'm talking about an itch, a desire for change, a need to get up off of one's ass and do, or be, something different.

We have addressed the tired cliche of writerly suffering many times on this blog, and neither of us subscribe to the notions you're assigning to us.