Slings and Arrows

I’ve been walking at odd angles for the better part of a year. Back pain, the kind that gets worse with each step. So the day before Valentine’s Day, I had surgery to (hopefully) repair the issue.

We like to curse our problems: Why is this happening? I need this like a hole in the head! 

It’s fine to complain and kvetch, as long as you’re also trying to slant positive.

And there’s always an upside if you’re a writer (or anything else in the creative arts). Your problems give you good material. We don’t really want to hear about your sublime vacation where you ate seafood right out of the sea under a wondrous sunset of pink and purple. Truth is, we’d rather hear about your stomach bug or lost wallet or the person you thought was shadowing you with kidnap in mind.

Those “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” give your story an essential tension, and connect it more dimensionally to the human experience.

Conflict makes for a worse vacation, but a better story. And it’s like that with every aspect of life, so you’ll always get a win-lose or a lose-win. (Some get a win-win, like my old friend Robbie who says he was glad he battled a life-threatening disease because it caused him to rekindle past friendships.)

The new TV show The Kominsky Method is about the friendship between a pair of old guys—an actor/acting teacher and his agent. The agent’s wife of many years dies of cancer. The acting teacher uses his grief to make a point to his class, saying:

That grief, that unrelenting sorrow, that’s the raw material, that’s the gold an actor mines to create a great performance.  

His friend, the agent, who has been listening in the back, blurts out:

So my tragedy is your gold?

So, yeah, you can also dip into someone else’s travails.

Back to my surgery. I was expecting a hellish experience, but also looking forward to getting some stories out of it—braving unbearable pain, my mind swimming in delirium through the night, becoming an inspiration to all who know me. Instead, the whole thing was surprisingly easy. A little post-op pain, but my problem seems better, the doctors and nurses were incredibly nice, and the chicken soup at the hospital was so delicious I might order it for take-out.

Good for me, but not that interesting, right?

Look at the toughest aspects of your life. Right now. They’re hard, damn it. Probably harder than my stupid back ailment. But, ah, which one will inspire your next great story?

Alex Steele
President, Gotham Writers Workshop

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