If You’re Happy and You Know It, Fall Apart

It was a Monday night. I was cutting up a steak I had just cooked for myself while waiting the recommended five minutes for my microwaved instant baby red mashed potatoes to fluff and cool down. My younger cat was rubbing against my leg and chirping, presumably because he thought the steak was for him.

This was the moment I realized I was happy.

I immediately panicked.

Things fall apart. I am one of those things.

Things fall apart. I am one of those things.

*

“Writing is not a profession, but a vocation of unhappiness,” says Georges Simenon and perhaps he was being cheeky. Perhaps not. It’s been my observation that the only thing writers love more than alcohol is the sound of their own suffering.

*

When I was in 10th grade, I made a bucket list. There were 11 items because I liked odd numbers and at that point in my life, I was building my identity around being odd.

This summer I tried to find my bucket list, but I couldn’t. I tried to remember what was on the list, but mostly, I couldn’t. I remembered the top three: go on a cruise, see a green flash, and find my mother. But that was it.

And I felt. . . sad. Sad because I couldn’t replicate the hopes and dreams of my 10th grade self. Sad because as I decided to sit down and make a new list, I discovered I had no idea what the hopes and dreams of my 27-year-old self are. I added, Publish a book of poetry. I walked away.

A day went by and I continued to feel unsettled. There was only one other thing I could think of that I wanted, truly wanted, to achieve before I died. I sat back down and wrote in tiny print on the bottom of the list, Be happy.

*

When a writer suffers a heartbreak or some form of personal suffering, inevitably another writer will tell them, “Think of all the poems that will come out of this.” Or, “On the bright side, you’ll have something new to write about.” As if darkness is a writer’s bright side.

There’s this feeling that a writer needs to be unhappy in order to be a good writer, that they need to suffer for their art, and I think it’s bullshit, but also in some ways, I think it’s true.

I do honestly believe that all good writers have (or have had) some form of depression, because how could they not? I have dysthymia (the Eeyore type of depression) so I kind of figure happiness is like Greenland. I know it exists, but I figure I’ll never go there.

There are plenty of reasons why I write, and one of them is to feel better. Which is not to say that writing makes me happy. I write when I don’t understand what I’m feeling. I write when I do understand what I’m feeling and I don’t want to feel it anymore. I write until I reach that moment when the poem has something to say that is more important than what I have to say. Because in that moment I get to surrender and feel empty, in the Buddhist sense of the word. In that moment, I don’t feel my depression. It’s not happiness exactly, but it’s a very satisfying feeling.

*

There’s this guy I knew in high school who was kind of like my mentor and we occasionally keep in touch. And by keep in touch, I mean he sends me an email every few years that says, Are you happy?

That’s it, that’s all it says.

The question is like an evil mirror that I hold up to my current life, and I don’t know how to interpret what I see. Because really, what the hell does happiness look like? (It probably looks like me smiling, you say. Well, you probably don’t know me that well then. I smile when I’m nervous and uncomfortable. I smile when people are being condescending and I want to kick them in the balls. I have resting smile face.)

The reason I stopped believing in happily ever after isn’t because I don’t believe people can find happiness but because I’m not sure any emotion exists in an ever after state. Happiness, like any emotion, is something you feel until the next stimulus comes along in your life and you feel something new.

There’s an episode of House where Wilson accuses House of being afraid of happiness. (Ok, that’s every episode of House.) As a viewer, it’s easy to sit with Wilson and shake your head at the determinedly miserable doctor. But as much as you want House to find some inner peace and to stop sabotaging his love life and hallucinating dead people, the writer in you understands that these things can’t stop happening. Because once he’s happy, there’s no reason to watch the show. It’s over.

*

So I panicked. My steak got cold, my potatoes got cold, and my wine got warm. My cats got cranky. I locked myself in my poetry closet and wrote an angry poem, just to make sure I still could.

And now, I am confessing to all of you, that it’s possible that I’m happy. And that scares the crap out of me.

11 Comments

  • A musician friend of mine told me his happy life screwed up his music career. He met his true love, had a wonderful daughter, and then didn’t know what to write lyrics about anymore.

    I think our art changes as we grow older and move through various stages of happiness, despair, and grief in our lives. Hopefully our art grows through these cycles.

    Loved your post. Also, watch this: http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html

  • Laura says:

    I love that you have a poetry closet.

    I wonder if the whole happiness thing applies more to poets than fiction writers. Or maybe the shorter the type of work you write (whatever its designation), the more sadness works. Because I’ve attempted to work on a novel while depressed, and it doesn’t get anywhere. It’s too easy to get swallowed up by the enormity of the work and the I’ll-never-finish-this-so-screw-it-where’s-the-wine mentality. Of course, that’s not to say happiness makes the work flow either.

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    I love the line: “As if darkness is a writer’s bright side.” I guess I think your job is to feel everything. So, happy? Sure. Miserable? Of course. Generous? Yes. Petty? Definitely. From the point of view of a kind of writer’s pathology, I wonder if happy feels too small somehow, or too simple,or just one of many landscapes that you might occupy. That might seem/be ridiculous, I know…

    • Kmac says:

      That actually makes a lot sense to me. Maybe my problem is that I’ve figured out how to use miserable and generous in my writing and/or editing moments, but I haven’t figured out how to use happiness as a writer. Except for the whole happiness leads to panic leads to me needing produce a new poem right now in this goddamn second thing.

    • Jason Sommer jason says:

      totally on board with the idea of a writer’s job being to feel “everything.” that being said, as a fiction writer, the reason i’m not really exploring happy places isn’t that it feels too small, or simple – but actually kinda the opposite.

      successfully writing about happiness, in a way that doesn’t feel reductive or candy-coated, feels like basically an impossible task to me. creating something that isn’t sappy, or one-dimensional – but actually representative of true & transcendent joy? that’s seriously fucking daunting. the other stuff (misery, etc.) seems like lower-hanging fruit.

      • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

        I think true and transcendent joy might be easier than happiness….

      • Ericka Taylor says:

        Maybe I’m being too simplistic, or maybe it’s because I just read your Tolstoy quote, but I’m not particularly drawn to writing about happiness because I’m not really compelled to read about it. Give me the grit and grime, the misery that is like mine but different enough to cast illumination.

  • Ericka Taylor says:

    I love it, Kmac. Someone asked me how I was doing the other day, and I replied, “Suspiciously well,” because, well, you know, happy? Sounds like a racket if I ever heard one.

    • Kmac says:

      “Suspiciously well” is exactly right. It’s “I’m doing fine actually” but also “Are you the person that’s going to shit on my happiness? Because I’ve been expecting you.”

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