A Portrait of the Artist as a Troubled Man

No one ever taught me how to express myself. Oh, I had excellent teachers teach me excellently about literary techniques such as chiasmus, parallelism, and diction. I can leaf through a thesaurus as well as the next guy. But what good is any rhetorical device if you have no feelings to express with them?

How many healthy and happy writers has this world seen, really? There was Joyce who drank. Then there was Hemingway who also drank. Then there was Faulkner and Cheever and Fitzgerald who also drank. If the AA went that far back it would probably be a 50-50 toss-up whether you’d find the great authors names first in AA meetings or in publishing houses. And then, of course, there was Virginia Woolf who filled her pockets with stones and walked into a river, drowning herself.

I’m no match for these peoples’ talent in either writing or alcoholic consumption, but it is at their feet that I have learned to express myself, huddled with their tomes in a nook behind my bed, every summer of every grade school year.

If our greatest teachers of self-expression all suffered from serious mental illnesses, aren’t we missing out on half of the human experience? I’m familiar with many, many ways to describe abominable living conditions of the destitute in Ireland but how many synonyms do I know for the word “happy?” Fulfilled? Content? Maybe four, five max? But test me on the word “unhappy” and I’ve got you covered: morose, crestfallen, bleak, dejected, broken-hearted, despondent. And that’s just ten seconds without the help of my good friend, Thesaurus.

In an attempt to describe the joys of life I remain at a loss. And so I sit, immersed in this amalgamation of unidentifiable feelings, attempting to parse through them like wet pages of a book, delicate and sticky. The inability to discern each of the more noble emotions mutes my ability to feel them. Is this gratitude? Is that melancholy? It’s as if I can’t resist adding a hint of sorrow in there somewhere, whether or not the description is accurate. Why is it that “melancholy” rings more sophistication and elegance than just “happy” or “joyful”? Have we so deeply accepted depression into art that there is no art without cynicism? Only naiveté?

I believe that these great authors possessed incredible gifts that allowed them to perceive and accurately (and therefore, movingly) portray the struggles and shortcomings of the human condition. But I also believe that, through no fault of their own, they largely missed out on the best that life has to offer and that there is an equally accurate other half of the story, the half that is the good and light in the world. I’m not talking about a tender moment here and there, which they all inevitably stumbled upon, but rather a pervading and unshakable joy.

I’m no Joyce, but I’ll keep trying. So far the dictionary can’t even tell me of an English word that conveys “deeply satisfied.” Right now here’s the best I’ve got: I feel a heavy and untroubled contentment. I feel alive, serious, and thoughtful.

If someone can come up with a word to describe all that, maybe we’ll write a book about. Just do me a favor and think of a better word than “frindle.”

“Happy endings might get a bad rep, but they still happen. And when they do, they’re just as true as the unhappy ones.”
— Hank Moody, Californication
(Aaand we’re back to the TV show references, folks… Ironically, from a character that is also an alcoholic writer)

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