To be Happy or to Write

I was challenged by commenter and dear friend Cate to write a post based on Jean Rhys’s statement ‘I rather be happy than write’ (paraphrased by Cate). My first thought is that Jean Rhys, while an amazing writer and fascinating individual, was a bit miserable. Then again, if I lived during the first half of the 20th century I’d be miserable, and pissed-off for that matter.

What feels like a lifetime ago, as an undergraduate I wrote an essay comparing Rhys’ personal, but now published, journals and her novel Voyage in the Dark. The essay has long since disappeared with the Toaster Mac on which it was written, but I remember the two being so similar in scene and narrative that Voyage in the Dark appeared to be a rewrite of her diaries.

With this in mind, it is no wonder Rhys may have felt unhappy when writing. Now called ‘Narrative Therapy’, Rhys may have used writing as a cathartic experience to express deep emotional trauma. This process, while healthy, is not pleasant and can bring a writer back to the moment when she felt her initial suffering. Therefore, Jean Rhys’ statement that she’d rather be happy than write is hardly surprising. If her writing was a process that brought back old pains and opened scars, the fact that she wrote at all is praiseworthy. Furthermore, the fact she published — as opposed to keeping her writing private — proves that she was a woman on a mission to use literature to change the plight of the underprivileged. To her, writing was not a pleasurable experience, but it made a difference in the world.

Rhys’ statement about happiness and writing makes me think about why I write, and if it brings me happiness.

Personally, I hate the blank screen and completing a writing project is physically exhausting. But once I’ve started the process, and the screen is no longer completely white, I enjoy the time spent creating characters, rearranging words, and developing a narrative. This is equally the case for non-fiction writing. Yet, for me, my writing is not autobiografictional, and I can use it to escape, discuss, or even explore — not to relive.

My personal daemon is being stuck at a desk. I adore being outside, moving, and being active. For me, there is a happiness and freedom in not being enclosed by walls or straddled to a desk. I long to be in a meadow, forest or even on a city street most days, even when the weather is bad. I find beauty in a winter evening rain storm, and how it turns a moonless night from nothingness to an inky black. I love a spring day, looking up through the new green shoots to a light blue sky.

I can feel trapped when inside and still. (I can also be incredibly lazy, and lying on a beach doing nothing at all is always appealing.)

When I look back at my life, the choice will not be between writing or happiness, as they both bring me pleasure. But between writing and activity. And, unlike Jean Rhys, I don’t feel like I can yet decide which one was better time spent.

However, we all have our writing daemons, and we will look back one day and decide if we regret our time writing. For each of us — I hope — the answer will be different.

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