Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Writing, Suffering, and Primo Levi

I have a New Yorker cartoon pinned up in my cubicle. It shows a college student sitting in her Ivy League style dorm writing a letter home: “Dear Mom and Dad:” she writes, “Thanks for the happy childhood. You’ve destroyed any chance I had of becoming a writer.”

I think I had a happy childhood, and a rather easy life up to this point. I live a country with great material wealth. I want for nothing. I am personally more wealthy, in money and possessions, than probably 95% of human beings alive today. (If you’re reading this, you probably are too.) Does this disqualify me from “becoming a write?”

Lately, I’ve found myself reading Primo Levi, the Italian chemist and writer who was an Auschwitz survivor. He wrote some of the best books I’ve ever read.

Was he a good writer because he had good material? Are his books profound because the experiences he had made him profound? I’m not trying to make light of his experience; it's a basic technical question for a writer. Levi had terrible, life altering things happen to him. These experiences fueled his world view, and were fodder for most, and one could argue all, of his writing. If he had grown up in late twentieth century America, would he have written so well? Would he have written at all?

In college, I sat around with other English majors discussing whether you needed to suffer to produce great art. Back then, we agreed that in some way, indeed you did need to suffer, even though I secretly did not want to suffer, ever. You’d have to go through a war, or grow up in horrible poverty, or have been abused, or have some terrible disease, or be a member of an oppressed people to have something legitimate to say.

Today, I come down on this question in approximately the same place: you do need to suffer to produce great art. But I’ve refined my premise: basic human existence in no matter what circumstances provides enough suffering to fuel any creative soul for many lifetimes. No need to wish for or, worse, seek out more suffering.

Hard work, drive, and talent (whatever that is) determine what you fashion out of your experience. If you believe that you don’t have anything to say, then you don’t have anything to say. And if believe you do have something to say (even if you light your cigars with hundred dollar bills and are the picture of health), if you say it truthfully and well, and keep at it, then, indeed, people will discover that you do, indeed, have something legitimate to say.

So I’d like to believe that Primo Levi would have written great books no matter when or how he might have lived. But, selfishly, perhaps, I’m glad he lived when he did and wrote what he did.

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