“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina, choosing unhappiness as his primary theme, for only in unhappiness does human identity and uniqueness seem to reside. Happiness is anonymous, and therefore it may appear inherently uninteresting to the contemplative artist. It is an emotion to be lived, to be experienced, an end in itself with no need or compulsion to examine itself. Happiness is essentially wordless, or so the logic of Tolstoy’s statement would imply. “And so they lived happily ever after.”
Theoretically, there is no aspect of reality that the gifted artists cannot describe or dramatize. Does the theme of happiness, then, present the artist with some special problem? Is there something in the very nature of literary art that militates against choosing happiness as a theme? In paradise, or in a social utopia, would there be little motivation for the creating of art? If, in choosing to become a literary artist, one henceforth depends upon the world’s unhappiness for one’s creative substance, how can one oppose that unhappiness upon which one’s identity depends? Is the project of art in some way tied to the sickness of man’s loving the very affliction out of which his art arises? The fact that one sets out to be an artist may affect the way one looks at the world by tempting one to focus on violence and pain because such themes are more exciting than those of tranquility or contentment.
— Robert Pack, “Art and Unhappiness,” Affirming Limits: Essays on Mortality, Choice and Poetic Form
The most difficult challenge I ever set for myself in my modest writing practice was to aim to be more creative and positive, less destructive and negative. I don’t mean “positive” in a shallow and saccharine way, but rather in the sense of being interesting without relying on snark or complaining. I wanted to generate more writing from my own resources and build up my reserves. When it works, it’s gratifying, but Lord, it can be strenuous effort. Tearing existing things down is so much easier than building something out of nothing. When coupled with the fact that everyday life is as contented and rewarding as I could hope for, it’s all the more tempting to avoid deep thinking and creative exertion and just be. But as with physical exercise, the long-term rewards of being in shape are worth forgoing the more immediate pleasures of laziness, however much the mental muscles ache at the moment. And also as with physical exercise, forging new habits might entail a change of circumstances and companionship. Hence I find myself poring through old collections of essays in search of inspirational material rather than reaching for a quick-n-easy bag of clickbait popcorn.