As part of ACPA creator Kathy Mac's "Wording Around with Prose" webinars, ACPA managing editor Jamie Kitts responds to their chosen text for lesson 2.1: Writing as a Way of Healing by Louise DeSalvo. This blogpost covers Chapter 4: "Writing Pain, Writing Loss."
"I now see pain, loss, and grief as the basis for virtually every act of cultural creation."
I'm sorry, but I cannot abide by this statement. Every piece of me insists that this is not true, and that it is extremely dangerous to let it go unchallenged. I know this because I remember my first workshop group, and I remember writing each member a short story as a Christmas gift for being thoughtful and inspiring writers.
Not one of those stories was crafted on the impetus of pain, loss, or grief. One of them in particular attacked this very notion. I called it "Faded Amber."
That story opens on two angry old men in an office space shouting at each other, an employer and employee. They take their argument out of the common area, the employee slamming the door to his boss's office shut. And then they start drinking together because they're actually very old friends. That story intentionally lampshades pain and conflict as being necessary for growth, as being necessary at all. I'm not saying it doesn't have problems; I definitely take the power dynamic for granted, and I'm sure my prose is much stronger now than it was five years ago. But I would never change that core belief: pain is not central, though we often choose to centre pain by default.
But again, I'm not saying this to diminish DeSalvo's instruction or lived experience. I'm also not suggesting that's it's wrong to construct narratives around pain, loss, and grief. More than any other kind of writing, I love hopepunk. Hopepunk requires a firm grasp of despair as a source of strength -- or rather, the ability to turn that despair into motivation.
"We evolve beyond the person we were a minute before."
-- from my favorite feelgood film, Gurren Lagann: The Lights in the Sky are Stars.
I think DeSalvo would've really enjoyed and resonated with this genre. But I don't believe every creation is the result of pain. As much as I love hopepunk, it still demands pain. I know that it's possible to write without conflict, to create something out of joy merely for joy's sake, and for it to have meaning and value without pain. Pain is only a context, one of many.
Again, beyond this one sore spot, I really enjoy DeSalvo's ability to weave narrative across several disciplines, subjects, and eras and enable readers to think critically about their own trauma. It's no accident that that movie I just quoted is on my mind; DeSalvo anticipates how the characters in Gurren Lagann process grief. But of course I'm also thinking about how I can use this and I already have ideas and scenes I'd like to master: traumatic dreams and flashbacks, some very recent.
I feel like maybe I'm coming across as harshly negative of this book when actually I'm very much enjoying it. There's an excellent passage in this chapter on self-blaming rhetoric and how dangerous it is, which is very appreciated. DeSalvo touches on stories about the worst things that can happen to people and how the writers who survived their traumas relived and described them in recovery, but through it all she draws important lines of what helps and hurts you in this process.
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