On the New York Times website, two authors ask this question: Is it harder to write about happiness than its opposite? They discuss the difficulties in writing about happiness.
Having ghost written a few biographies in the past, and working on fiction, there is no doubt in my mind that it is very hard to write about happiness. This is particularly the case when ghost writing biographies.
I’ve always likened ghost writing biographies to visiting a house. As a guest, you have to be grateful that you’ve been allowed into the house at all. It’s a neat and tidy place that has been showcased in various glamorous magazines. Yet, there is nothing special about it. Still, you’re aware that you’ve given the luxury of exploring the house in a way that others may not be allowed to. There is a fine balance you have to strike – you need to probe enough to get a good understanding of this house. Yet, you cannot probe too much in case you’re accused of snooping.
But here’s the thing: sometimes, in that overcrowded attic, where all this subject’s deep dark secrets are hidden, you might find that one thing – an old blanket, a miniature toy bicycle, an old fountain pen with the subject’s name etched on the side, a pressed rose in the folds of a diary, a worn out stub from a cinema ticket – that will trigger a memory and make the story of this house special. As a writer, you will never forget this house.
Likewise, when ghost writing biographies, I’ve found that, for some reason, the subject always wants to publicise what is good. It is a list of achievements, successes and a string of accolades. They never delve into any of their ‘failings’ from doing badly in school, ex-boyfriends/girlfriends (or both), previous marriages, illegitimate children, mistresses, embezzlement, bankruptcy or broken families. All of it has to be hidden, as though what makes them human is bad.
As a ghost writer, the constant need to project a sanitised version of the subject is exhausting beyond belief. As Kirsch says in the article: Even today, we harbor the suspicion that writers who offer happy endings are merely pandering, playing to our desire for reassurance. As a reader of such books, it’s even worse: such books are duller than dull.
That is not to say that I would like to read a book that has only ‘bad’ in it. In fiction, we’re often told that even the villain has to have a good side. You can’t make him a baddie all the time. He must have some good in him, even if it’s something very small.
In the end, it’s a question of balance. Especially in biographies, I want to know enough about the subject matter to appreciate who he is. That way, when you do tell me about what he’s achieved, I will be able to appreciate where he’s come from and see that he is, indeed, deserving of such an accolade.
What about you? Can you write easily about happiness?