Thursday, May 26, 2011

Suffering More: a Lesson from The Five Heartbeats

One of my favorite movies is The Five Heartbeats, an old classic about a band of five men who rise to stardom from their small black neighborhood, written and directed by Robert Townsend circa 1991.  One of the main characters, Donald "Duck" Matthews, finds out his fiance and his brother, J.T., also one of the band members, have been having an affair behind his back.  During his acceptance speech following this discovery, he makes a poignant statement that has resonated with me the whole of my writing career: "A critic said, 'Donald Matthews will be a great writer one day when he suffers more.' And I said to myself, What does that mean?  Now I know what it means."

There is something about suffering that causes an empathy among us as human beings.  When you read something that's happy from beginning to end, it feels unrealistic and detached.  You separate yourself from it.  You look at it and say, "Eh, that was alright."  But write about pain...and suddenly the whole world says, "Yeah, I've been there."  It's a heart-wrenching human identifier that we respond to instantly, even with animals and people whom we've never met.  It's the empathy of pain that tugs on your heartstrings when you see hungry children in third world countries, the wounded and abused animals in shelters around the world, and the deaths of endangered species.  It's the pain in a love song that makes you cry over a broken heart. As a human emotion, happiness is not something we readily identify with, because for many of us, the notion of true happiness has never been attained.  But pain is an emotion, a depth of feeling, that has touched us all.

It seems I write my best when my heart is in pain.  My best prose comes from the darkest places, places I couldn't get back to on my own if I tried.  It's where the mind goes when it is overcome with sadness, and can only be reached by reliving the occurrence that originally brought it there.  Writing brings that feeling to life.  It reminds us where we've been, and takes others to that place in the hopes they'll understand why you feel that way.  Writing was always and ever meant to convey emotion, by whatever means that emotion can best be displayed.

What is the correlation between art and suffering?  Why have the greatest creative geniuses of our time been such tortured souls?  And most, if not all, died young and alone.  Is this the sacrifice of true artistic greatness?  Were all like Daniel Webster, sacrificing art for their very souls?  Even one of my favorite authors, and whom I've been compared to by a few of my mentors, Edgar Allan Poe, was notorious for his dark prose and stories, but died in his thirties, married but estranged.  True, in his time people didn't live very far past maybe forty, but the question remains: is suffering the only human emotion by which we touch others so magnificently?  And if so, is the sacrifice for greatness worth the anguish that accompanies it?


  1. ~~Excellent.
    I've continually written my best work thru my deepest & darkest hours.
    I assume most writers do. This is what makes them identifiable and relatable to their readers.
    Loved the post.

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