Desperately seeking sorrow

Who in his (or her) right mind would intentionally seek out sorrow? Writers, naturally. It’s a common belief that writers must have lived, must have suffered. What would they have to say otherwise?

Happy in childhood and cheerful by disposition, Michael Chabon spent years haunted by the indictment delivered by his friend Joe the Lion during a beer-drinking, weed-smoking session in college: “You have no tristeza!”

“He pitied me for my lack of sadness,” the Pulitizer Prize-winning novelist told several hundred people last week at UC Davis’ Mondavi Center.

Chabon set out to remedy the situation. It’d be easy to gain an aura of heartbreak: He’d make mistakes, trust unreliable people, court disappointment, lie when truth was better and tell the truth when lies would have been more kind. But, alas, it didn’t work.

Surely, taking the young Henry Miller—a misogynistic and contemptuous young man who did what he wanted when he wanted, regardless of the pain caused others—as a hero would do the trick. Chabon became like Miller, “a little shit.”

Even that didn’t deliver the heartbreak he sought. The seriousness of the writing program at UC Irvine wore away Chabon’s youthful Milleresque façade, and he matured. The novel he wrote there, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, soon topped best-seller lists.

Still, his character lacked gravitas. After the heartbreaking failure of his first marriage a couple of years later, however, Chabon got it. One rainy night he fled a fight and sat in his car, crying and childlike, licking the sides of an ice-cream sandwich: “If Joe could see me now.”

It was a great story, and it reminded me of a comment I overheard while in college. A student at a nearby table in the outdoor café sounded close to despair: “I’ve been reading and reading,” she said, “trying to understand what suffering is.”

It’s been many years, but I’ve never forgotten it. I was a little older than her, with two daughters and a divorce behind me, but still young enough to think I knew something: “Good god, girl,” I thought. “You don’t learn about suffering from books. You gotta live!”