Be Happy and Write
In my book Asking I reference a poem in Michael Ondaatje's Secular Love where the speaker (who is going through a monstrously tough time) of the poem is told to "be happy and write." And then I go on to quote Rilke who rather splendidly says, "I basically do not believe that it matters to be happy in the sense in which people expect to be happy." Is it really possible, though, to be happy and write?
There's a sort of myth that we writers carry around with us, even if we don't believe in it per se, and that is that it's not really possible to be happy and write. That they're mutually exclusive, and that somehow being happy will ruin the creative process. But I do think it's possible to be happy and write, at least in the Rilkean sense.
I'm not saying that it's wrong to channel our sadnesses, our griefs, our dissatisfaction with the way things are, and even our anger, into our writing. I'm just saying that it's good to give ourselves permission to be happy when we write, to find happiness in the process, and joy in those moments of wild creativity that come upon us like miraculous gifts.
As writers, in general, I think we know to find our happiness in what we make, in the making itself. Rob, my artist husband, has often said that he never feels the urge to shop or buy a fancy car, or do any type of 'retail therapy' because he'd rather just make a painting. So the urge to have something new is something he can take into his own hands.
While writing this I had a conversation about writerly happiness with my good friend Kimmy Beach, (author of Nuala: A Fable) who texted me this: "I think that not enough of us recognize when we are actually creating good work. I make a point of noticing when I write a terrific sentence." What we can do, is slow down and savour those happy-making moments.
Similarly, we can notice when we're unhappy. Make friends with it. Or as Bryony Gordon has said in an article in The Telegraph titled "Is there a formula for happiness? Four writers share their stories":
"You sit with your unhappiness, no matter how much of an arsehole you think it is. You talk to your unhappiness, however creepy it makes you feel. Maybe only for an hour each week, with a therapist there, but you talk to it all the same.
Try to at least make an acquaintance of it. Get to know it. Attempt to work it out, so it doesn’t keep getting the better of you."
What even is happiness? Gordon says, "But being able to cope with unhappiness is, I realise, all that happiness really is. It is nothing more complicated than that."
I know that I'm happier when I'm writing, or have been writing. When I'm in the flow of writing. The fewer interruptions the better. But as Virginia Woolf once said, "for interruptions there will always be..." You might as well be happy with the interruptions, too.
Happiness is such a strange concept anyway. I like what the artist Georgia O'Keeffe says about interest:
“I think it's so foolish for people to want to be happy. Happy is so momentary – you're happy for an instant and then you start thinking again. Interest is the most important thing in life; happiness is temporary, but interest is continuous.”
The way to be at peace, especially in our art-making process, I think, is to be interested.
As you would imagine, poets have put a great deal of thought into happiness, and have penned a fair number of poems. Linda Pastan writes in "The Obligation to Be Happy" that "It is more onerous / than the rights of beauty / or housework, harder than love." In her poem titled, "Happiness," Jane Kenyon says "There's just no accounting for happiness" and compares it to a prodigal "who comes back to the dust at your feet / having squandered a fortune far away."
In "Afternoon Happiness" Carolyn Kizer says "I'm fearful I'm forgetting to brood." She attempts to get free advice from a psychiatrist at a party. "Doctor, I'll say, I'm supposed to be a poet. / All life's awfulness has been grist to me." We're uneasy when too much happiness comes our way. Susan Griffin in her poem, "Happiness" begins, "Happiness. I am not used / to this (There is always / something wrong)."
While I understand the sort of mysterious quality of happiness, the obligations we feel toward it, and also the fear of having too much, I think maybe a more productive way to think about it is in May Sarton's poem, "The Work of Happiness." Happiness, too, is part of the work of writing. It is woven into it, too, out of the silence of the work, and through the long hours of inwardness. The poem begins:
I thought of happiness, how it is woven
Out of the silence in the empty house each day
And how it is not sudden and it is not given
But is creation itself like the growth of a tree.
But where people have lived in inwardness
The air is charged with blessing and does bless;
Windows look out on mountains and the walls are kind.
Having collected the above poems to share, it didn't escape me that all of the excerpts were by women. Are women writers more and/or differently preoccupied with happiness? Perhaps it's just an accident of the internet search...
In closing, if you can't be happy and write, and I don't think you're especially obliged to be happy by any definition but your own, you can always write about happiness. And anyway, as E.M. Forster once said, "Happiness in the ordinary sense is not what one needs in life, though one is right to aim at it. The true satisfaction is to come through and see those whom one loves come through."