The Value of Sad Stories

23 September 2020 on Nonfiction, Storystorm  

I grew up in a laughing house.

Granted, it was sometimes a yelling house, or a screaming house, or a crying house – but the important thing was, my family knew how to laugh it off. Once a week, on Saturday night, my dad and I would drive to the local Blockbuster and pick out a movie. I usually did the picking, trailing my hand along the plasticky DVD cases, reading the back of each one in full, removing anything with ‘gratuitous nudity’ from the maybe stack. We only ever had one directive from my mother: “Get something funny. Life is sad enough.”

This stayed with me even after Blockbusters and DVDs were replaced by Netflix and Hulu, and sitcoms with canned laughter saw competition from a new, more self-aware type of humor: tragicomedy.

But what were the stories I actually sought out, in a childhood decorated by the humor of Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy? The stories I stayed up at night reading by flashlight in a cocoon of covers? Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston, John Steinbeck and Barbara Kingsolver – authors who understood that to tell a human story, you need pain as well as joy – these were the voices who kept me up into the early hours, some nights until the dawn chorus began its birdsong. What did I see in their pain that so drew me in? Celie’s delicious, velvety purple dolor? The way the bipolar farm boy Tom Hamilton “struggled with greatness”, as Steinbeck told us? Maybe it was how Kingsolver’s Ada found, as a bitter adult, that her debilitating limp was all in her head. Or maybe it was the overarching fact that these characters made me feel less alone when they invited me into their personal tragedies.

In my own field of creative nonfiction, I hear people’s concerns that the modern memoir is oversaturated with sadness. Of course, a story doesn’t need to be sad or controversial or, god forbid, ‘confessional’ in order to be good; there are many ways to insert complexity beyond tragic outcomes. It’s worth noting, the saddest thing that has happened to us is not necessarily the most interesting.

A friend in my writing program once called my work, “sad stories in nature,” which is a fair description. Another friend asked to read my work; when I told them they might not enjoy it because the subject was sad again, they asked me, “…do you ever think about writing humor?”

I do.

But when I try to write pure humor, it feels a little empty. Like I’m selling something that’s mostly air. Maybe my customer wants carbonation. Maybe they read in the daytime, on their phone in the bathroom stall, between work meetings. Maybe they don’t want me to make them cry while they’re pooping. I get it; we live in a multi-tasker’s world.

But the thing is, humor needs sadness sometimes. Laughter springs from a good cry like a mushroom out of wet earth – fecund and colorful and threatening to poison or sate. Sadness is a beginning – an opening vacuum that can be filled with joy or humor or redemption or tenderness. When done well, sadness can prepare a reader for self-reflection in a way that feel-good writing seldom does.

Take David Sedaris for example: the poster child of humor essays. He writes from an unhappy childhood, an angry father, a struggle with his own sexuality. These things give texture to his jokes and render them more enjoyable because we recognize how thin the partition is between laughing and crying.

My own self-reflection: If things were never sad, I don’t think I would have grown up in a house full of laughter. I don’t think I would have known the need for one to balance the other, like a child raised on the equator who doesn’t know the summer-longing that winter brings. I don’t know that sad events make us stronger, but they do make us more receptive to the emotional spectrum of a story, and that is something that, as writers, we can use.

In this day, memoir is often critiqued as confessional, navel-gazing, narcissism in commercial form. But my best writing has come from tragedies – and not simply because they happened, but because I was able to use them as a runway, to open my story up to a broader purpose, an emotional universal. One that may, someday, make a kid in their blanket cocoon feel less alone.

My advice in this time of uncertainty: write into the sadness, and see what grows.   

Maggie Wallace reads nonfiction for Barnstorm and is a third-year MFA student in nonfiction at the University of New Hampshire.

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