I tried – I really tried – to make it through Breaking Bad. Admittedly, I waited until the series was nearly over to even watch an episode, but within the first 30 minutes I could immediately see why people got caught up in it. The writing is topnotch, the acting incredibly good, and the conflict is constant and powerful. And the episodes were like crystal meth itself: almost instantly addictive, causing me to fall into nightly Netflix binges.
Still, I ended up bailing out late in the second season, for exactly the reason I’d been so reluctant to start watching the show in the first place: as I had feared, it just got too dark and depressing for me. I only watch TV late at night, and those just aren’t the kinds of thoughts and images I want to put into my brain right before going to bed.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the show since then, and at a broader level it has made me ponder this question:
Why are we drawn to dark, tragic, and/or flat-out depressing stories – both as audience members and as storytellers?
On one hand, I frankly question how healthy it is for us to focus on such dark topics, with so much lying, pain, suffering, violence and death. On the other, I wonder whether we’re drawn to such things because up until just a century or two ago, our own day-to-day lives were filled with far more violence, hardship and darkness than many of us now experience, so perhaps it addresses some psychological/emotional void we’re feeling. Or maybe it’s that awesome word schadenfreude, describing our propensity to draw pleasure from the suffering of others – in this case, even others who are fictional.
Going straight to the source
I soon concluded that I had no freaking idea what the answer was. And when I can’t find an answer, one of my first instincts is to find somebody who knows more about the given topic than I do. So I decided to take advantage of my friendships with numerous writers whose work is far more dark and serious than my own, and essentially ask them: Why so serious? Read on to see their answers.
The unreleased power of purposely hidden emotion
Booklist summarized Jessica Keener’s debut novel Night Swim like this: “When her mother is killed in a car accident, Sarah, 16, lives in ‘a cavity of pain,’ and each chapter in this eloquent first novel captures the teen’s anger, guilt, loneliness, and sorrow at her wrenching loss.” So yeah, I think Jessica qualifies for this questionnaire. Here’s what she told me when I asked her what drives her choices:
“I’d say I’m drawn to subjects that are often submerged, situations that we are afraid to disclose, and, in particular, emotions that are buried or purposely hidden. Why? I think there’s unreleased power in those things. We live in a culture where people are discouraged from showing their full range of emotions. Perkiness, cheerfulness, putting on a smiley face? Those things are applauded. That’s fine to a point. Tears and grief are acceptable for a short time, but no dwelling allowed.
I’d say I’m drawn to subjects that are often submerged, situations that we are afraid to disclose, and, in particular, emotions that are buried or purposely hidden. Why? I think there’s unreleased power in those things.
~ Jessica Keener
“Yet, depression is rampant. I like to drag this heavier, gooier emotional matter out for airing, find out its shape, learn what it’s made of; make it less monstrous, perhaps. When we don’t, we become rigid and afraid. Relationships suffer. We snap. From there, we lose our sense of humanity and our ability to feel compassion.
“Taking on difficult subjects like shame or guilt, fear or anger, death and illness can open doors to the universe in a surprising way. Not all doors, but some. In the process, I’ve discovered that dark places can lead to places of light. I find that exhilarating.”
I found it exhilarating, too, when I read Night Swim. And I’m eager to read Jessica’s new collection of short stories, and not just because of its brilliant title: Women in Bed.
Illuminating serious issues for both reader and writer
Jon Clinch writes fiction that I have to emotionally gird myself to read – it’s that dark and intense. And yet reading his work is always a rewarding experience, even if I’m worried about how it might influence my dreams. From his debut Finn, which was named one of the year’s top novels by the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Christian Science Monitor, to more recent work such as The Thief of Auschwitz or the post-apocalyptic fiction he writes under his pen name, Jon has proven himself unafraid of going to the dark places. Here, Jon explains why:
I choose serious subjects because I believe in the power of fiction to illuminate them.
~ Jon Clinch
“I choose serious subjects because I believe in the power of fiction to illuminate them. Although many of the issues in my books are things that we’d probably rather not look at too closely – racism, poverty, the terror of the Holocaust – the tools of character and plot and pacing can draw us in and make us see such things clearly almost in spite of ourselves.
“That goes as much for me as a writer as it does for my readers. By giving ourselves up to the fictional dream, we can learn about the dark matter that lies underneath the world.”
Hmmm – that’s the second light-related reference we’ve seen in this post. Wonder if this will be a recurring theme?
Reaching inside to wrench out truth
I’ve been fortunate enough to speak on panels with Randy Susan Meyers at a couple of literary conferences, and the thing that struck me most was that for somebody who wrote such serious fiction, she is funny as hell! Yet she is another author whose writing takes us down some pretty dark paths: The Miami Herald wrote that her debut The Murderer’s Daughters “dives fearlessly into a tense and emotional story of two sisters anchored to one irreversible act of domestic violence;” similarly, the Huffington Post warned that her new novel The Comfort of Lies “will make you think and wince and maybe even cry.” Randy has blogged about her writing (and reading) choices in the past, and she’s given me permission to quote her sentiments on the topic:
“My favorite childhood books etched themselves on my soul, reached inside me and wrenched out truth. As an adult reader I still feel that way; I’m constantly foraging for books that offer glimpses into a character’s psyche, that go deep enough to make me part of the choir, saying, ‘Oh yeah, me too, tell it, writer. True that, uh huh.’
I try to write with a knife held to my own throat, so that my work will hold as much emotional truth as possible.
~ Randy Susan Meyers
“Now that I am a writer, I’ve learned that reaching so deep isn’t always comfortable. Hey, my daughter’s gonna read this! Hey, husband: this isn’t you! It’s far easier to skate on the surface. But my favorite books, the ones I return to time and again, are those ones gritty enough to have emotional truth (which is very different than the truth of events.)
“Thus, I try to write with a knife held to my own throat, so that my work will hold as much emotional truth as possible. I want to offer what has been given to me – and which, honestly, saved me again and again. Thus, to keep what I consider to be the writer-reader covenant, I work to dig beyond my comfort zone and keep that knife in place.”
From reading Randy’s excellent debut, I can tell you she is not afraid to use that knife.
Braving the darkness to glimpse light and hope
I have to agree with the San Francisco Book Review‘s assessment of Susan Henderson’s debut Up from the Blue as a book “that will continue to haunt you months after you finish reading it.” NPR concurs, calling her novel “an unsettling, yet beautiful story you won’t soon forget.” Here’s how Susan describes her literary passions:
“As a reader, I’ve always been drawn to darker stories – the human spirit set against plagues, orphanages, wars, death row, or behind the closed doors of what look like ordinary homes – to see what people do when faced with impossible choices, the soul stripped bare, trembling and ashamed. There’s a real catharsis when, from the safety of your reading chair, you can face your deepest fears or say, I’ve experienced this too and have always kept it a secret.
I write dark stories because they’re what I like to read.
~ Susan Henderson
“So that’s my general answer – I write dark stories because they’re what I like to read. But the truth is, Up from the Blue was a story that haunted me until I finally wrote it down. An image kept coming to me of a child in the moment that would change her forever, and my instinct was to squeeze my eyes shut until it went away. It didn’t. So I decided to follow the image and see where it led, giving voice to this child’s grief, and discovering that, even in the midst of dark times, there is love, beauty, friendship. At times, while writing this story, it was hard not to shut my eyes, but I was determined to keep on until I could glimpse light and hope.”
Another light reference! What’s interesting is that I communicated with each of these authors separately, so they didn’t see each other’s responses. Definitely starting to see a theme here…
A reflection of some personal ghosts
Priscille Sibley is a nurse, poet, and author whose novel The Promise of Stardust was called “a gripping, thoughtful, heart-wrenching, and well-written debut that would be a great discussion vehicle for certain book groups” by Booklist. I knew this book dealt with extremely grim subject matter, so I was very interested in how she came to write about such a heavy topic. Here’s her response:
“Simply? I see dead people. (You’re supposed to laugh.) My novel is a reflection of some of the ghosts I carry. I’ve witnessed death – more often than most – because I am a nurse. I have struggled (and still do some days) with end-of-life issues.
I’ve witnessed death – more often than most – because I am a nurse.
~ Priscille Sibley
“Years ago I took care of a child who was in a persistent vegetative state. His situation was tragic and it bored a hole in me. Later, when the Terri Schiavo court case dominated the nightly news, the story resurrected the ethical questions. In my opinion, the well-meaning do gooders who were trying to keep her on life support didn’t have a good grasp of the reality.
“My what-good-could-possibly-come-of-this frustration gave rise to my what-if premise. What if a woman in a persistent vegetative state were pregnant?“
Check out Priscille’s book to see where that question took her. But you might want to have some tissues handy.
Deriving authenticity from loss or hardship
On a similar note, Deanna Roy is an author who uses her writing to advocate for women who have lost babies. Kristin Cook, founder of Faces of Loss, Faces of Hope, said that Deanna’s debut Baby Dust “sheds a light on the all-too taboo subject of miscarriage in a raw, compelling, and incredibly realistic way.” I asked Deanna to share what drives her writing and reading choices, well aware that I was likely delving into a very personal area. But she graciously responded:
“I am a strong believer that pain shared is pain halved. With that aim, when my own first tragedy struck in 1998, I put up a cute little animated-GIF emblazoned GeoCities web site spilling my guts. Hearing from other mothers whose babies had also died helped a lot, and I realized how much power writing could have in helping people feel more connected and less alone.
I am a strong believer that pain shared is pain halved.
~ Deanna Roy
“Almost all my books touch on loss or hardship in some way, and they all draw from personal experiences so that I can make both the descent and the climb back out as authentic as it can be. I’m not sure whether I write to pull myself out of a hole, or to show another person how to get there, but either way, it’s the type of books I’m always drawn to.”
Six authors reinforcing one lesson
I want to thank all six of my friends for baring their souls like this. But I suspect that their willingness to do so is a big part of why they each write such emotionally resonant fiction. This is a lesson that keeps coming up, and we hear it from every angle – from agents, editors, fellow writers, and ultimately from our readers: As writers, we need to dig deep. When we do, that’s when we’ll make an emotional connection with our readers.
I hope you enjoyed the insights my friends shared as much as I did. They’ve definitely assisted in the ongoing process of opening my mind. But I’m still not sure I’ll ever go back to Breaking Bad – despite the fact that it served as the inspiration for my Halloween costume this year. Click here to see it, if you dare.
How about you?
If your tastes – in reading, writing, or viewing – lean towards the dark and/or tragic, have you ever stopped to wonder why? I’d love to hear your input, and gain more insight into what draws many of us to open a book that might in turn make us want to open a vein.
Likewise, if you share my reluctance to be voluntarily exposed to fiction-induced heartbreak and/or nightmares, I’d love to hear from you, too – if nothing else to confirm that I’m not alone. Either way, thanks for reading!