Suffering is a word that transcends culture and nations, left and right. It is a word and concept many writers are all too familiar with.
Dylan Thomas drank himself to death. J.D. Salinger lived reclusively in New Hampshire producing few works. Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson killed themselves. But was all this suffering necessary?
When Suffering Defines Us
Shyness and low self-esteem followed me as a child. Doubts became beliefs and those beliefs led me down the road of life.
I loved baseball and excelled at it. Win or lose didn’t matter as long as I played. When I moved into the bigger leagues I stumbled not knowing how to ask for help. I ended up walking away thinking I was no good, though a year earlier I led the league in doubles, triples, and homeruns.
Was it true that all of sudden I sucked?
No, it was my mind telling me and I believed it. I walked away from what I loved.
Have you ever done that with writing?
Quit writing because the world rejected you or the skies didn’t open when you finished a piece?
How many times do we walk away from something we love out of fear or rejection?
How many times have we run from something that might just be amazing?
Those painful emotions – fear, disappointment, sadness – can be so strong as to overwhelm what we love and keep us stuck in a place of misery.
However, it led me to recently ask, what is suffering, and can it ever be good?
I’ve heard about people who suffer and are destroyed, and others who suffer and accomplish great things. Let’s take a closer look at the differences between good and bad suffering.
Bad suffering is chronic affecting our disposition and point of view, our beliefs and self-image. It affects how we live as it seeps into our bones and thoughts, into the heart of who we are. It blocks us from those sunnier horizons. It blocks us from love and opportunities.
The pain from hitting your funny bone against a door is temporary like a rejection letter should be. It sucks, and after hopping around cursing for a while, you move on.
There’s a difference between temporary pain and long-term suffering. Remember, suffering is created in the mind.
“Bad” suffering taps into a lack of self-worth that can make us question our very existence.
Why am I even here? No one cares if I write.
The rejection should only be temporary and not stop us from pursuing our goals. If the mind relates it to not being worthy or a failure it can stop us in our tracks.
Those emotions need to be addressed. It’s something writing success won’t cure. I know, I’ve tried.
You think the writing is hard then you send out queries and first pages or you market yourself and spend what few dollars you have on ads then hear crickets. That result is not about you. Only what you’ve tried.
Perfect sentences don’t exist. Excellent sentences do. I’ve known writers that keep rewriting the same sentence until it’s “perfect” and all that happens is they run out of gas.
Bad suffering stops us from moving forward. Perfect is something none of us will ever be. Keep working at that thing called craft. Work the clay like Rodin.
Suffering is found in the thoughts we are thinking that keep us stuck in the beliefs we hold onto.
Writers write in isolation. We’re inclined to introspection and were usually sensitive kids. As adults, we must ask: Are we still holding onto those pains and limiting beliefs?
When I was a young writer, I believed I had to suffer to understand life. I struggled with depression.
In certain places within, I felt empty, loveless, wanting to die. I wanted writing to save me. I wanted external forces to help me put my broken pieces back together—for someone to come along and dust me off.
I wanted my characters to be better, bolder, nobler than I’ve been. I wanted them to be seen, heard, witnessed.
I wanted the world to love me where I didn’t love myself. Now that’s some bad suffering.
Struggling is about waiting for the huge best-seller to save us and make everything right, but it can’t.
Years back I had a sweet manuscript about young love and a mother dying of cancer. My mother had recently died of cancer and I wanted to honor her. The book was called Dawn and I couldn’t get an agent. It broke me. I walked away, the same I had with baseball.
Bad suffering keeps us stuck in that same repeating moment, that same beat and memory, that limiting belief we experience over and over again.
Suffering is a normal part of life that happens to all of us. However, it’s the choice of what we do with it and how long we hold onto it that matters.
What is “Good” Suffering?
Good suffering is doing something uncomfortable that moves you forward. Simultaneously, it begins breaking up the old suffering piece by piece, bird by bird as Anne Lamott said in her excellent book on the writing life of the same name.
Good suffering is putting yourself out there, taking risks, embracing fear, trying something new.
Good suffering places you outside the comfort zone.
Fear what if I fail? Nothing. Stay focused on the end goal. Failing is a part of strengthening the mind.
What if I don’t go for it? Well, then you’ve already failed.
Babies who are crawling and trying to get up learn how to walk by falling down and building strength pushing themselves up again.
Good suffering builds that strength.
On a whim, I pitched this blog idea to Jane Friedman thinking she’ll never respond. My doubting mind said, I’m not a big enough writer.
I was wrong. She was gracious and responded that very same day.
Good suffering brings us closer to happiness and dreams.
In life we are going to suffer, it’s part of the deal, but will the suffering bury us or will we learn to heal and strengthen ourselves?
Both are choices with very different mindsets and results.
If writing is the dream, defeat is not the goal, and the big scary monster is just big and scary and self-made. Because it’s self-made, it can be self-unmade, piece by piece, fang by fang, bird by bird.
My wife is a business coach. She uses a tool with her clients called A Tasks. A Tasks move us forward with small attainable goals. Send an email here. Do a podcast there. Whereas B Tasks are stuff we’d be doing anyway. A Tasks move us toward our goals. B Tasks keep us going.
Make small shifts. Do it now. Not tomorrow. Write a sentence, a paragraph. Reach out to that agent or send that blog pitch, ask for help. We all need each other in this world to fulfill our dreams.
Do it for you, not what the demographic might want, or your parents, or friends.
We can’t run from old pains. We can meditate, sit without judgment and I guarantee that pain will loosen up and eventually diminish and all that trapped energy will be yours again.
As Navy Seal Ultra Marathon runner and author of Can’t Hurt Me, David Goggins says, “Without friction there is no growth. On the other side of suffering is greatness. We must go to the dark side. Light is found there. Fear of what other people think shackles the mind. Win the war in your head and you will find peace.”
Taking steps forward takes courage. It’s natural to be afraid putting yourself out there. It opens you up to criticism. But it also opens you to that greatness Goggins speaks about. Being afraid, as author and speaker Brene Brown (famous for her Ted Talk) would say, there is no courage without risk.
How do you turn suffering into happiness?
Change the environment, change your thoughts and beliefs. Feed your mind different ideas.
It’s a battle.
So is completing a novel and dealing with rejections, falling down and getting up again.
Every boxer takes it on the chin sometimes. So does every writer.
Let yourself grieve and feel the emotions.
Be present. Stop living in the past.
Be vulnerable. There is truth and power found there.
Bad suffering is when you feel sorry for yourself, sit around moping all day giving your power away, feeling like a victim.
Bad suffering is wanting to connect to writers and agents, but you’re too afraid to pay for a seminar and go for fear of rejection.
Good suffering is being afraid but going anyway because what you seek may be found there. Afterall, your dreams are found on the other side of suffering.
With “good” suffering you are making a decision, taking action, and opening doors.
With “bad” suffering you are still making a choice, but it’s a disempowered choice. You are choosing to go nowhere.
The difference is in the outcome. The results.
If you really want to live that thing in your heart, it’s going to take suffering and mental toughness to break through. The first steps out of the comfort zone will be tough.
Meeting an agent, going up to someone is scary because it’s our most vulnerable self.
This is why it’s so important to know the difference between suffering that will lead to success and suffering that only leads to more suffering.
There is a difference.
You can choose.
You always have a choice.
It doesn’t matter how small that choice may seem, it can yield huge results. Reach out to a blogger, a marketing person, or run an ad. Write that next paragraph even if the preceding one stunk. Keep moving forward.
Decide to do something today, not next week or tomorrow. Right now.
Take back your power.
Allow yourself out. The world needs you. Most importantly, you need you.