Apropos of writing an essay on the experience of plodding through a difficult time in my life, I have been thinking about what suffering means for the artist. The process of writing that essay, as one would expect, was a dark affair layered with distress and pain. I wrote in spurts, never steadily, as both the writing and its subject irradiated agony. Why, I wondered, does a significant part of art and literature luxuriate in the exploration of pain?

My submission: The good and benign do not yield much—we learn nothing particularly profound from them. There’s nothing dramatic about happiness and contentment. Deeper insights into life come from the bad, the ugly, the evil, the dusty hovel of great suffering. We strive for happiness because we are surrounded by its opposites. Perhaps literature revels in pain because the writer suffers so he can create—and something of the writer’s ordeal while writing is absorbed by the pages produced. Writing my essay was difficult at an emotional level for a number of reasons: the first is that I found myself reliving the agony of all I went through during the event I was writing about, and sleeping became a problem, for whenever I closed my eyes, I had nightmares; the second isssue was the stylistic choices I had to make, which were no less difficult. For instance, how do I convince people that what I was writing about—visions and spirits—was real and not the hallucinations of a mad man? As a result, I fretted for hours each day over choice of words and phrases.

By now, the image of the suffering artist is commonplace the world over. This is not always about pecuniary constraints; the image is also informed by suffering occurring in a region of the mind. Adrift in the waters of life’s material and mental demands, the artist is profoundly troubled. Yet, if he must create, he must handle the great distress of those demands with equanimity.

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Writing can seem closely related to the medieval monk’s life—the solitary life of righteous toil in hermetic spaces. But as those cloistered monks thought themselves devoted to spiritual life, writers, at some level, think of themselves as people of great relevance trying to create—or dream up—work that will evoke reverence because it comes out of a perceived higher purpose. The monk of old is imagined as bald, hooded, and studiously bent over his calligraphy and miniatures; the writer can be just as imagined agonising for hours over a sentence, over Flaubert’s le mot juste.

The quest for “rightness” is at the heart of noble suffering. For St. Francis of Assisi, the quest led him to think of poverty as the “heavenly virtue by which all earthly and transitory things are trodden under foot, and by which every obstacle is removed from the soul so that it may freely enter into union with the eternal Lord God”.

By choosing physical wretchedness, shedding all mundane desires, Saint Francis sought a higher spiritual level. In his avowal there is, if you will, a consideration of the demerits of attaining material wealth. As the Bible says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter heaven”. The sense here is that poverty and suffering engenders a transformation of sorts.

In The City of God, Augustine of Hippo affirms this logic of Christian suffering as the beneficent will of God and a predetermined trial that leads to a state of invulnerability: “The tide of trouble will test, purify, and improve the good, but beat, crush, and wash away the wicked…The difference is not in what people suffer but in the way they suffer.” The idea is that a very specific kind of suffering is a baptism of fire, a rite of passage into a higher state of being. Job loses his riches as a divine test, Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights.

In my own Igbo culture, human suffering is believed to be an integral component of life, complementary to the idea of happiness. It is why we say Afụfụ ụwa—suffering that is within the world—anytime we refer to suffering. One cannot exist if the other is not there. This view links paradigmatically with the Igbo concept of duality, encapsulated in the saying that where one thing stands, another stands beside it. The privation, want, and despair that suffering brings is, therefore, a necessary aspect of life. It serves a purpose. Consider Viktor Frankl’s declaration that “suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning”. What then does suffering mean for me as a writer? Is it a pliable material—in terms of poverty and emotional turmoil—I could milk for writing? Or is it an inadvertent part of the life I had lived and the process by which I write? The distinction between these questions, and their answers, are quite nebulous.

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When a disturbed writer sits down to write, doubled with his burden, pain becomes an effort of will. He would need to work doggedly at one thing for a long time, suffering with a view to finally reaching the end of that thing. This is how John Updike puts it: “Being able to write [is] a kind of shield, a way of hiding, a way of too instantly transforming pain into honey.” Virginia Woolf believed that “in illness words seem to possess a mystic quality”. “To be a writer,” says Orhan Pamuk, “is to acknowledge the secret wounds that we carry inside us, the wounds so secret that we ourselves are barely aware of them, and to patiently explore them, know them, illuminate them, to own these pains and wounds, and to make them a conscious part of our spirits and our writing.”

When we read about depression and despondency, we enter the crevices of a writer’s distilled experience. Consider Eliot’s Wasteland:

After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience.

Also, consider Okri’s “An African Elegy”:

There are things that burn me now
Which turn golden when I am happy.
Do you see the mystery of our pain?
That we bear poverty
And are able to sing and dream sweet things.

In the optimism of Okri’s verse, there is something that touches the transformative reality of suffering as part of the elemental human needs and desires and aspirations. As James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time, “I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering—enough is certainly as good as a feast—but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are.” My point is simple, the writer must suffer in some way in order to create, for suffering itself is motivation; it gives your subject the clarity of having gone through a transformative experince. I wouldn’t have written what I had written, the way I wrote it, if I had merely coasted through the ordeal.

There is a great many writing out in the world which makes artifice and sentimentality out of human suffering, but true art turns agony into the sublime. It explains why acts as negative as betrayal or infidelity often make for great fiction, as we see in Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, The Great Gatsby. It is why war literature reaches the depths of the human experience as few things can, as we see in Forna’s The Memory of Love or Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

James Joyce’s years in Trieste oscillated between moments of inebriated extravagance and near destitution. Yet he wrote some of his best work in that Italian city by the Adriatic. Dostoyevsky had a perpetually difficult time of it as a writer in Tsarist Russia, juggling debts and a large family—neither of which could have been helped by his gambling addiction. At least, his suffering was visibly remediable. This could not be said of certain writers.

Dambudzo Marechera, for one, led a life that makes for painful reading. It is especially curious that literary production could come out of all of that instability. The famous first line from House of Hunger—“I got my things and left”—seems emblematic of the peripatetic movements that defined his life. His vagrancy as an African alien in the streets of London and Oxford—writing on scraps of paper, wearing one outfit—and his steady mental decline evoke a most repulsive picture of a writer reduced to an animal existence. It’s a situation often made worse by the alienation and anxieties of a stressed mind—iterations of which are evident in the descent of a long line of writers from Woolf to Wallace.

In Bessie Head’s A Question of Power—a novel Head considers “almost autobiographical”—the character Sello says, “It is when you cry, in the blackest hour of despair, that you stumble on a source of goodness.” There is nothing physically romantic about poverty and suffering, but its vicarious and visceral experiences seem to stimulate artistic creation.

Ernest Hemingway, whose writing I have utmost admiration for, was a tortured man who hid his mental suffering well behind a show of masculinity that, sometimes, proved self-destructive. Mary V. Dearborn, one of his biographers, noted that he “was burdened by serious physical injuries, including multiple concussions—which would today be called traumatic brain injuries, whose scope and variety are only now beginning to be understood.” But Hemingway was also a man who understood that writing is an undertaking that manifests from suffering and sacrifice. This was a man who had famously enjoined younger writers to “write hard and clear about what hurts.” Key word: “hurt”.

Like Santiago, the protagonist of The Old Man and the Sea, a writer is always, by the very nature of creation itself, contending against physical and metaphysical odds. When the aged and weary Santiago finally returns home after a spell at sea fighting an enormous marlin and several sharks, Hemingway writes of his young pupil Manolin’s reaction as the old man sleeps the deep sleep of the fatigued in his shack:

“The boy saw that the old man was breathing and then he saw the old man’s hands and he started to cry. He went out very quietly to go to bring some coffee and all the way down the road he was crying.”

In writing about my own painful experience, I came to understand what Hemingway conveyed in that passage: Only the sight—and site—of suffering evokes such an emotional response.


Chimezie Chika has appeared in The Shallow Tales Review, The Republic, Iskanchi Mag, Isele, Culture Custodian, and Afrocritik. A Runner-Up for the J.F. Powers Prize for Fiction in 2024, he was a 2021 Fellow of the Ebedi International Writers’ Residency and is the Fiction Editor of Ngiga Review.