An Argument Against Sadism (Hear Me Out)

I know what you’re thinking. Nobody needs you to argue against sadism. It’s sadism. Everyone already knows it’s bad.

In the context of writing, though, I don’t think that’s totally true. Kurt Vonnegut has a list of 8 basics that he calls “Creative Writing 101,” and number 6 is this:

“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

I know obviously I’m in no position to argue with Kurt Vonnegut when it comes to writing, and I don’t want to — in fact I totally agree with this point. Writing is nothing without conflict. It’s important to put even the most charming characters — maybe even especially the most charming characters — into terrible situations, exactly for this reason, so that the reader gets a better idea of who they really are. (It also makes them more relatable. It’s better than reading about a character you really like just walking around and having a good day.)

But I disagree with the idea of that being sadism. And I know that seems nitpicky — it’s just a word he used to get your attention — but I’ve heard this idea elsewhere. A friend once told me that all writers are both sadists and masochists. That seemed like a bit of a melodramatic way to put it to me, but I also kind of got where they were coming from. It can be fun, really fun actually, to write about situations of conflict, because that’s where things get interesting! Since conflict is so central to writing, if you dislike writing about challenging situations, then you’re probably going to have a tough time writing any fiction at all. So the act of writing about these situations themselves — giving yourself that chance to really think about conflict — is probably what attracts a lot of people to writing in general. At least it is for me.

So there is pleasure to be found in putting characters into these situations. And this can seem weirdly close to a kind of sadism.

But this is where I think I disagree.

I’m not going to do that high-school-English-essay thing here where I give you the Merriam-Webster definition of something, but we all know that sadism is basically deriving enjoyment from the pain of others. I’d like to reiterate at this point that I’m a total amateur when it comes to writing and that I know about as much as any presumptuous undergrad with an English major can claim to know about it, because that’s all I am. So if you’re looking for a valid opinion from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, go buy a copy of On Writing or something like that. But it seems to me that writing about conflict, if you want it to be good, has a lot less to do with sadism and more to do with its opposite, with compassion.

Think about it: You want the reader to be right there with the character while this is happening. You want them to be so close to the character that when the character is driven into a serious situation of conflict and comes away changed, the reader comes away a little changed, too. That’s all writing is supposed to do. What does this necessitate if not compassion? If you’re just sitting there having fun while you torment this character, and that’s the only motivation behind any of it, then that’s not going to lead to any real end. Really caring for and thinking about the characters, even while you’re writing them into difficult situations, makes those situations more layered, even if that’s only happening subconsciously.

I didn’t even start thinking about this until pretty recently. People ask me every once in a while why I like writing; three or four times in school I’ve had to write essays about it. I never know what to say. I want the answer to be really complicated, and/or really passionate. Like I write to uncover the truths of the world, which isn’t true at all because I think you can find truth doing anything, or Writing helps me deal with the demons of my own subconscious, or the standard fallback, Writing is my passion/I need it like I need air/look at me I shed paper, I bleed typewriter ink if you can believe it. It’s different for everybody but for me, that’s kind of BS. The real answer is that whatever my reasons, I don’t really think about them too much. I think writing is really fun.

Like I said before, enjoying writing about conflict is a big part of that fun. I only realized pretty recently that that’s not because I enjoy causing my characters pain in and of itself. It’s because I love figuring out how to make conflict mean something. It’s like a big puzzle — sorting out how to fit it into the rest of the story, making sure it’s relevant and will mean something to somebody. This sounds technical but it really isn’t — it’s a matter of figuring out how to conjure up emotions out of completely nowhere, of looking at something as neutral as a piece of paper and somehow finding a way to make someone look at it and feel grieving or angry or relieved. That’s true emotion and there’s nothing technical about it, because if there were, then maybe it would be easier to become good at it. I believe in magic because when I read stuff by Katherine Anne Porter, by Flannery O’Connor and Joyce Carol Oates and everyone else I look up to, I know I’m feeling it. They’ve figured out this impossible puzzle — they know how to teach me something, how to reach me and affect the way I think, even though they’ve never met me, never even seen me and never will. They’ve gotten close to something I might never touch, but it’s so worth trying.

I write because when I finish writing a story that I feel good about, it’s a feeling like nothing else I know: like I’ve gotten to know somebody who isn’t even real, but who matters anyway. Like me and them have worked together to say something that could maybe mean something to other people.

If you want to call it sadism, then fine. But the way I see it, writing is about understanding people and trying to show people how to understand you. And even if that’s an impossible puzzle, it’s a really fun one to mess around with, and I think that’s something people know — even if they only know it subconsciously, and “sadism” is the first word they can come up with for it.

Writing is obviously different for everybody, or else we would all be using it to say the same thing. For me, though, thinking about writing as an exercise in compassion has I think made my writing better than it used to be, and hopefully someday it will make me better as a person, too. I can’t say what other people use it for or how other people view it because I’m not them, but I know caring when I see it in other people’s work. This is just the way I think about writing personally these days, and I’m glad for it.

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The Merits of Crying

I’ve been really on top of it lately. I know how that sounds, but I can’t help it, I’m really proud! I’m finishing up an internship application, I recently came up with a cool idea for my first fantasy short story, and I’m about to start getting paid for my hours at Sweetland (an awesome campus resource where consultants like myself help people out with their papers). Today alone, I passed my calc gateway exam, took two quizzes I felt good about, and got my car’s oil changed. Success!!! Adulthood!!!

I should probably clarify that things are not always like this for me, which is part of why this recent, week-ish-long string of successes has surprised me so much and gotten me so excited. I’ve actually been in a really good mood. I feel comfortable talking to other people,  and I’m motivated to come up with new ideas and projects. I’ve even woken up earlier than necessary the last couple of days (which normally is impossible for me), and I’ve been excited to wake up in the first place — there’s this moment of apprehension when I first realize I have to get up, but it doesn’t really cut deeper than mere annoyance. Once I’m out of bed and brushing my teeth in the bathroom, the annoyance is gone and I’m just happy.

I’m writing this because pretty recently today, a lot of this happiness sort of came to a head. A little background: For the past two weeks, my computer has been getting repairs done, due to this weird crashing problem where it randomly freezes, goes all squiggly and scary with black and blue lines, and then goes black. I brought the repair place (which I won’t name here for the sake of confidentiality, I guess?) a new RAM and hard drive, and they said that installing them would take three to five business days. Today I finally got the computer back, and when I started it up in the hallway outside the repair place, it went black instantly and gave me the three little beeps that indicated that the problem was still there. I brought it back, stood around for twenty minutes or so while they looked at it again “downstairs,” then re-accepted it with the assurance that the problem was now taken care of. Apparently a thick layer of dust had been built up somewhere inside the computer, but the technician had just now cleared the dust away, and it should be fine now.

“Why didn’t they see the dust when they were replacing the hard drive?” I asked.

“They were probably just in a big hurry and didn’t notice it,” the technician said.

I nodded politely as if this made sense, thinking privately that if they had been in a big hurry, I might’ve had my computer back about a week and a half ago.

So I brought it home, more or less satisfied, then sat down, plugged it in, and turned it on. Everything was working much faster than it was two weeks ago, and, when prompted, I even decided to treat myself to a tour of my new Sierra Operating System — until? Midway through the tour, the thick black lines appeared again on my screen, and my computer crashed.

And I kid you not, I started crying. Suddenly, out of nowhere, everything seemed so unnecessarily difficult. I think my thought process went something like: It took them so long to fix my computer, and now it’s not even working! And this is such a dumb thing to be frustrated about anyway! And those guys at Wendy’s took so long today, and while I’m at it, everyone at Sweetland is so much better than me at consulting! And my room is so messy! So-and-so would know what to say right now, but they’re not even here! I miss so many people! And at the auto shop the guy said I had mouse debris in my cabin air filter, and I’m basically breathing mouse air, but a new filter would be so expensive so there’s no way for me to avoid breathing mouse air, and I think I deserve to breathe mouse air, anyway! I bet it’s from that possum I hit on 46 when I got Dad from the airport at two in the morning that one time! That possum could be alive right now! And why do living things have to die?

Needless to say, all of it was pretty dumb, especially considering that my life is generally so unnecessarily un-difficult. I’m white, I’m middle-class, I go to a great university, I’m lucky enough to have a lot of great friends and family members I care about. Most of the problems I have to complain about have less to do with deficits in the world around me and more to do with my own deficits of patience and perspective. I try to approach my problems this way because it gives me a better idea of how much control I have over changing them — if I listen to myself complain for long enough, eventually I reach the point where I realize it’s just time to stop. “Oh, God,” I moan over and over again, “I have ten assignments due tomorrow and I haven’t done research for any of them, and I spent way too much money today, and I’m pretty sure so-and-so is mad at me.” I say these things to myself on repeat for some length of time, ranging from ten minutes to multiple weeks, and then eventually I start to hear myself and I grumble, “Okay, shut up already, you should hear how stupid you sound.” I do the assignments, I make a plan to start saving more money, I move on past my social anxiety, and the process never starts with any excitement or enthusiasm, but ultimately I do accomplish it, and I do feel better.

But the important thing to note here, I think, is that you can’t just switch a flip (edit: flip a switch) and make yourself be productive, or make yourself feel better. I’ve tried. You can’t force it. It always starts with the complaining or the crying, with some way to release your problems audibly, to wring them of a little of their tension before you turn back at last to deal with them. I think this step is important. In fact, I love this step. Today when my computer crashed, I felt a wave of brimming frustration, followed quickly by my natural instinct to gently press it back down and move on. But instead, I told myself, No, you should cry — to cry would feel good right now — so I crawled into bed and started crying, and I didn’t stop my thoughts as they wandered toward subjects that I knew would only make me cry more. It was a huge release.

Now, about two hours later, I feel decent and awake. I don’t feel fresh and vibrant and ready to take on whatever I come across with a goal of productiveness and efficiency, but then again, I don’t normally let myself get too close to that sort of feeling anyway. (I do slip into it sometimes, and it’s fun, but I’ve found it’s an easy feeling to get carried away with, and I can give myself a bit of a headache with all of the organization and goal-setting and proactive Life-Changing). Right now I’m not thinking of spring break or summer internships or even any of the tests or assignments I’ll have to worry about next week. Right now, after a frustrating afternoon, these anxieties are my enemies. I can submerge them for a night and let them resurface again as friends when the time is right. When they do, I can rein them in and work them into a shape that will help me accomplish something. For now, I am going to publish this blog post. I’m going to finish my shift at work and go home and eat dinner, and then I’m going to sing and play guitar at my house’s open mic. It’s going to be fun, or maybe it isn’t, I don’t necessarily care because I’ll be there either way. Maybe, after the events of the night are over, I’ll read something until I fall asleep.