by Suzanne Farrell Smith, with Cheryl Wilder
ed. Claire Guyton
Wrath doesn’t sound fierce enough for its meaning. It starts with a liquid consonant and ends with a breeze through the teeth, and it’s comprised of a single syllable that contains the first vowel sound we teach to children. Taking a cue from my co-author Cheryl’s introduction to this series, however, I listen for fury in the word, and at the right frequency, I hear it. The flowing r deepens into the growl of a cornered cat. The short a escalates to an open-mouthed scream. The th whips into a spitting curse fixed on the enemy.
I’ve been afraid to look closely at Wrath. Because my husband produces for a television news magazine, we frequently watch episodes about rage—between neighbors, ex-spouses, co-workers, siblings, classmates—festering and building until someone winds up dead. There’s a difference between Wrath and anger: anger can smolder indefinitely, the ominous thundering that never becomes the storm, whereas Wrath explodes and destroys. The firenado.
I once came close to publicly releasing my own small firenado into the center of my writing life. For years I had idolized “Jamie,” a well-known author who produced the kind of work I wanted to write. Her books seemed to target me specifically. They plucked me from the reading multitudes, pushed me into my writing chair, forced me to face my work—work that wrangled with a complicated loss—and showed me how to shape it into something whole. Because of Jamie, my work found its literary cousins. It belonged somewhere. Jamie, a hologram hovering over my laptop on a perpetual writing date, became my mentor and trainer. She wouldn’t let me give up or even get up.
I badly wanted to meet Jamie in person, to narrow the gap between idol and fan, and, at the very least, to thank her. And my secret self wanted something more: I imagined Jamie as a wise and gentle guide who would throw her arm over my shoulder and welcome me to the writing world. But my fantasy-Jamie took a direct hit when a friend told me something terrible about real-life-Jamie. He had gotten to know her and said she fulfilled every unflattering cliché of the successful author: arrogant, condescending, pretentious. She was dismissive, he said, too caught up in her circle of big names to spare a few minutes for a small name like him. According to my friend, she did pay attention to one thing: she took an idea of his and ran with it as her own.
Not Jamie. Not my Jamie.
Years after discovering Jamie on the bookshelves, I had the chance to meet her at a literary event. There she was, center to a group of fans like me, so accessible. A hologram turned human, a byline and black-and-white headshot become flesh. And not on-a-panel flesh or behind-a-podium flesh but in-our-shared-space flesh. She had walked in with someone I knew, so now we had two people in common. The degree of separation between us all but eliminated, I bounced and beamed and fussed with my hair until a moment opened. Setting aside my friend’s warnings about Jamie, I unloaded my fanhood without pausing for breath. I love your work. My writing would be a scrapheap without you. In fact, I referenced one of your ideas in a piece I just published. I’d love to talk with you about it.
Jamie let me flare out. Expressionless, she said, “You did cite me, right? For that idea?” I stumbled. “Yes … of course I did.” I don’t remember if I said anything else. But I do remember that Jamie turned her back on me—literally—and took the elbow of a man close by. I didn’t know him. I’m sure he was adorable, eloquent, perhaps with a book on his CV or a choice seat on a conference panel or a madly popular upstart journal. Was my writing idol nothing but the archetypal high school mean girl?
With a couple glasses of wine already working their black magic on my self-control, I nearly spat something out. Something loud. In the middle of a room of fellow writers. Something along the lines of: Wow, my friend was right, you really are an ass!
Even now I cringe when I think of how I seethed and nearly behaved like a fool. Hindsight tells me that I wasn’t being fair to Jamie—how could she possibly know what she had meant to me, and, quite frankly, why should she care? If I’d indulged myself and blasted her, I might have crippled some of my writing aspirations. Ours is an intimate world—an outburst would not soon be forgotten, and bridges might burn on the spot. Worse, I would have betrayed my friend’s confidence. Worst of all, erupting at a literary event would have felt inimical to the best part of my writing life, my commitment to and participation in our good will for one another. Our esprit de corps.
I wish that were the end of it. I wish I could have separated Jamie-the-person, who had snubbed me, from Jamie-the-mentor, who had spoken to me from the pages of her work. But in private I cursed Jamie. I refused to attend her readings and panel appearances, and told my closest writing friends to steer clear of her, too. I stopped reading her words and believing in her wisdom. I don’t regret guarding myself and my friends from a well-known writer who could act so superior. But it was destructive for me as a writer working through an all-consuming project to banish, so suddenly and painfully, my on-page guide. I came to hate those of my pages that seemed to have been influenced by hers. What kind of writer was I if I’d been molded by someone so contemptible? Nothing, not even my writer-self, was safe from my Wrath.
When we asked our writing friends to talk about the deadly sins, Rich Farrell said he believes the sins resonate with writers because “the uninitiated must pass through a period of long trial.” He goes on: “The sinner becomes the saint, but only after passing through hell.” Wrath, for its heat, its terrifying ability to end things irreparably, its consumption of the self, its sheer noise, epitomizes hell.
Nothing compares to the Wrath of nature. As I write, reports on Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath scroll across the muted television. The devastation in my city—New York—is worse than anything we’ve ever seen. What strikes me most: the six-alarm blaze in a Queens neighborhood that destroyed over one hundred homes; the multiple power failures at our local hospital that led to the evacuation of even the tiniest babies in critical care; the carbon monoxide poisonings due to poorly placed generators; the mangled construction crane dangling ninety stories above Fifty-Seventh. When a hurricane is coming, we plan for wind and water. We can’t fully plan for the myriad other disasters that arise in a catastrophic ripple effect.
No, nothing compares to the Wrath of nature. And I hesitate to mention that truth in an essay on the writing life, when lives and homes have been lost or changed forever. But as I think about how Wrath acts—a blind, chaotic, and unstoppable force—it alarms me that should it go unchecked in our writing lives, it could destroy much more than just our writing.
Wrath has a sinister way of messing with us by propelling us down false, unproductive, or ruinous paths. Furious with negative reviews? Threaten the reviewers, squashing anyone’s inclination to write a positive one. Incensed at not selling a manuscript? Rage against the industry in a bout of self-blacklisting. Upset at how your piece is treated in a workshop? Blow up at the leaders and get kicked out. Bitter toward a journal that rejected yet another submission? Insult it, thereby insulting all the writers who have been published there. Mad that the book isn’t flying off shelves? Fire the publicist and writhe, alone with the stack of still-unsold books, on one side of the burned bridge. Jason Mott admits, “I’ve gotten angry at editors or journals for rejecting my work and wasted valuable writing time trying to write in a certain way just to prove that their feedback was wrong.” If we let it, Wrath can steal energy from writing, break professional connections, and destroy nurturing personal relationships in the writing community.
In this series, we have pursued both peril and potential in the sins, and Wrath is no exception. How do we see the bright side of an emotion that brings us to hell? How can Wrath’s destructive force be turned to good? Wrath can in fact be productive by igniting creative output. “Being pissed off can be a great inspiration,” says Risa Nye. “I wrote a blog post that was fueled by some really old wrath.” The key for Nye was to tap into her Wrath and employ it as a device. “I used an approach I learned in a writing group: write about something you hate as though you love it, or write about something you love as though you hate it. I went with the hate as love version, and wrote about how being a victim of some mean girls proved to be Another Fine Opportunity for Growth.” For Nye, Wrath was just what she needed to fire off a fresh piece of writing. And now that the tap is in, more pieces may follow. “Mean girls?” says Nye. “Bring it!”
Productively using Wrath is like burning the underbrush to prevent a forest fire. Adam Arvidson describes this process of Wrath’s controlled release through the writing process: “As an environmental writer, I feel some wrath toward the wanton disregard of our planet and the people and creatures who inhabit it.” By the time Arvidson sits down to draft, he writes carefully and with purpose, but not angrily. “This causes me some conflict, and sometimes I feel my writing should be more wrathful, but I just can’t do it.” Wrath remains, however, something like a silent partner to Arvidson. “My entire writing life (both my freelance work and my personal essays) is driven by deep personal convictions that, on some level, rise from frustration, anger, wrath. … So though the anger rarely appears in my writing, it is one of the driving motivations for me.”
Jennifer Lunden names Wrath as a primary catalyst for writing: “My book-in-progress combines memoir and social criticism to tell the story of how everyday chemicals are causing increasing health problems for Americans. In the prologue it says that I’m writing the book to protect others from getting sick, and that is certainly one of my motivations, but what fires this book is wrath. Don’t tell anyone, but secretly I think of it as my manifesto.” Yet Lunden believes that in order to serve the writing, Wrath must be mitigated with an opposing force. “The wrath-fired artist is fueled by a drive to foment change. But art birthed from wrath must be tempered with love. Love helps us craft rich and textured multi-faceted characters. Without love, everything would be flat and ugly. Love is what makes it beautiful. Love makes people want to turn to the next page.”
Tavia Gilbert’s Wrath is aimed at circumstances that make writing, among other activities, arduous. Dysfunctional feet that have required multiple surgeries, and corresponding problems with her spine, force Gilbert to live in chronic pain. “This, at times, has made me wrathful—resentful, frustrated, discouraged, despairing. It is enough of an undertaking to write at all, without adding in a level of serious physical difficulty. At times I am reluctant to sit down to work because my neck is in spasm … or my feet are overtaken by stabbing, lacerating, burning pain.” It’s the process of overcoming her Wrath toward her circumstances that gives Gilbert the motivation—and the capacity—to write. “Because of what I’ve endured and still endure, however, I am more compassionate, wise, gentle, forgiving, and intuitive than I would be with a body free of pain. … So, I suppose it is not wrath that fuels my writing, but what is on the other side of wrath—after-wrath.”
Wrath is a potent, potentially endless source for material. Our surveyed writer friends tap, channel, manipulate, and overcome Wrath in order to produce new work. Like them, I’m furious at a lot of injustices—a trusted school maintenance worker who stole my purse, the negligent parent of one of my students, a dentist who pulled my tooth without permission or anesthesia—and most wind up in my writing. I don’t feel ashamed of committing the sin of Wrath. In fact, my Wrath tends to be based on an indignant feeling of being right, and my prose is how I get—literally—the last word.
But the Wrath I felt toward Jamie, someone within my writing life, didn’t fuel me to write. It made me question the identity I’d dreamed of building and the type of work that spoke to me. As for my writing, it left me stunted. As I twisted in my Wrath, I turned away from the manuscript I had been piecing together, and from the enrichment that Jamie’s work might have continued to offer. And then I fell into a deep hole.
Time passed. The firenado didn’t incinerate me. The flames died down and I crawled out of my hole. I can’t really claim this as a triumph over Wrath. Rather, I coped with it until it became less scary, then surveyed the damage and found some unexpected benefits. I saw that my Wrath had torn apart not my work, but the limits I’d imposed on it by focusing so intently on a single source of inspiration. And I discovered new role models who might have remained hidden were I not forced to seek them out. There’s resolution in that, a sense of accomplishment that I didn’t let Wrath defeat me. And at long last, I’ve found a way to channel my Wrath directly into writing, by laying it to rest right here, on this page.
The writer friends quoted here …
The questions we asked…
Has Wrath ever hindered your writing?
Has Wrath ever fueled your writing?
How can we move past Wrath, not just in name, but really, truly move past it in spirit?
Fire in the Middle of Forest Digital art by Rostislaz Uzunov via Pexels.
Previously published at Hunger Mountain.