Dani Shapiro
December 26, 2010

On Wrath

Oh, it doesn’t get much worse than this.  Wrath (along with it’s very close family members Pride, Greed, and Envy) forms the deepest, basest, most toxic element of a writing life.   I can almost smell it, when a piece of work has its roots in wrath.  You know… when you want to write something because it’s going to hurt someone else.   I call it the revenge memoir (though sometimes it can be further disguised as a revenge novel or story or essay).   In the revenge memoir, a writer sets out to do harm.  To use the pen as a sword.  To cut and stab with words.  Revenge memoirs reek.  They’re almost never any good, because wrath is blind.

I can’t tell you how many students, over the years, have turned in stories or essays that clearly have their genesis in wrath, in revenge.  He said/she said kinds of stories.  He-done-me wrong/she-hurt-me-terribly kinds of stories.  Told from a great and digested distance, of course, these stories can form the basis of  some good work.  But the key is distance.  Perspective.  Irony.  Understanding.  Told from the battle ground of the feelings themselves, the words are spewed–not controlled.  They are ammunition.  Not literature.

My favorite piece of wisdom about this, which I have been carrying around on a page of my old-fashioned Filofax since the late 1980’s, comes from Edward Albee.  Albee wrote: “For the anger and rage to work aesthetically, the writer’s got to distance himself from it and write in what Frank O’Hara referred to in one of his poems as ‘the memory of my feelings.’  Rage is incoherent.  Observed rage can be coherent.”

God I love that quote.  It’s so instructive.  And it’s true of any strong emotion.  It’s paradoxical, but true, that we don’t want to be feeling too much as we’re setting words down on the page.  By feeling I mean being in the heat, the throes, of an emotion.  The crystalline clarity that comes from observing emotion is what we’re after.  And that takes time.  Space.  A willingness to step back and look hard–not just at the situation, or the other person, but at oneself.

But how do we know?  Students often ask me this.  How do we know when we’re ready?  When we’re writing out of observed emotion and not as payback or revenge?  When whatever wrong has been perpetrated against us, in our own minds, turns into a story worth telling?  A story that might have universal resonance?  The best way I know is this.  When you sit down to write, scan the deepest parts of yourself.  Are you writing because you want so-and-so to read what you’ve written and weep?

If so, you’re writing out of wrath. And you’re not ready.