by Amanda Earl
“I think by the time you're grown you're as happy as you're goin to be. You'll have good times and bad times, but in the end you'll be about as happy as you was before. Or as unhappy. I've knowed people that just never did get the hang of it.”
― Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men
They say people cheer up after listening to the blues because they realize their lives are better by comparison or because they feel a kinship for others who've undergone bad experiences too. Kids love Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events" where the characters are subjected to increasingly horrible misfortunes with miserable ends. In the award-winning, highly popular television series "Breaking Bad," the main character goes from learning he has cancer to cooking meth to selling it to becoming a drug kingpin. Every season becomes more and more dramatic and dire.
Why are humans attracted to tragedy? Edvard Munch's painting "the Scream," a portrait of a man in agony in front of a blood red sunset is one of the highest selling paintings in the world and has been the object of many an art theft. People stealing agony? Why, because they don't have enough of their own?
Have you seen Louis, the show starring the stand up comedian Louis C.K. as a stand up comedian? In the first episode he talks about how life is ultimately unhappy because we're all going to die. Even romantic relationships are doomed because the best case scenario is that you end up with someone for years and then one of you dies. A fairly bleak outlook, but not wrong. And most of us find this sort of comedy amusing, cathartic even. Art, music, film, tv, and literature that portrays or embodies some form of unhappiness gives us all a chance to laugh at life's absurdity and to relate to misfortune.
My own theory is that because humans go through a lot, have to deal with adversity, it is reassuring to imagine that others are also going through such. It's a feeling of solidarity and relief that we are not alone.
I've never been much for happy endings, either writing them or reading them. For the sake of this blog entry, let's say that happy ever after endings in fiction are those where the main character gets what she wanted by the end of the story: she ends up with the man of her dreams; she receives a million dollar advance for a book, etc. But basically whatever conflict she has undergone is resolved by the end of the story.
I occasionally write unhappy stories, but more often than not I write happy for now fiction. It just doesn't sit well with me to wrap up a story nicely with a tidy ending. Nor does it please me aesthetically. It feels too improbable. I simply can't or don't wish to make it work. I can't reconcile it to any kind of reality. It feels too much like painting the walls of the psych ward pastel pink and blue in order to calm the patients down. It feels like placating. What I want to do in my writing is to stir things up, to make my readers and myself restless. To jar them out of complacency. Somehow suggesting that there is happiness at the end of the rainbow seems inauthentic to me.
It's not that I'm some sad sack who doesn't have hope that some things go right. After all, I am alive despite all odds to the contrary. But it's the struggle that attracts me, the process of clawing one's way up through seemingly insurmountable odds that I find interesting about people and about characters. I like to leave my characters still fighting rather than having fought.