Using Anger to Create Meaning in Writing
by Rita Robinson
When I hear someone say that anger is a weakness, I put it right up there with those who also say that swearing is a weakness. Tell that to Mark Twain who said in Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar, “When angry count four; when very angry, swear.” He also said, “Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.”
Anger, often caused by a perceived injustice, can be uncovered in story after story because it leads to the energy and passion to write a book, article, poem or short story in the first place. It can be the touchstone to writing what needs to be said, and provide the impetus to start getting it down on paper. That initial beginning, laced with anger, helps to make a person’s writing sing. In turn, that melody draws readers to what that writer has to say.
When writers allow themselves to use anger, it becomes another form of “fight or flight” using their adrenaline to fight on paper, maybe remembering that Thomas Jefferson in 1776 sent a letter to Thomas Paine saying, “Go on doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword.” Jefferson predated Bulwer-Lytton’s more famous words, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” in his play “Richelieu,” performed in 1839.
Using Anger Without Ranting
Once we start putting it on paper, however, that anger can fuel the steely calm for the story or article to be told with thought, clarity and meaning, without ranting. Plain old rants don’t sell well, the same as preaching in writing doesn’t sell, unless it’s a preacher writing his next sermon.
Everyone from newspaper reporters to short-story writers, magazine writers, fiction and nonfiction book authors, memoirists, poets, and those writing private journals sometimes use anger as the starting gun to analyze that anger and to begin pouring it out on paper.
Several of my books, and a few articles, got their beginnings because of initial anger and edge. But that’s OK because more writing stems from anger than from smelling the roses or tip-toeing through tulips.
Using anger isn’t as difficult as it sounds, even though we’ve been taught to hold anger at bay and not express it. Not expressing anger seems to me not only bad for health, but stifling for writers. It appears obvious that John Steinbeck could not have written the Grapes of Wrath without anger at what poor people leaving the dust bowl had to endure.
Writer Use Anger to Solve Social Problems
That’s only one example, and only touches the surface, considering the articles and stories published to foster The Women’s Movement; the Civil Rights Act; better working conditions for garment workers; and the Green Movement. Also, writers were instrumental in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of breaking the grip of children as young as six years old working in factories and coal mines. Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, the latter considered autobiographical, contained material about child labor.
Writing that makes change, though, doesn’t need to be momentous. And it needn’t create change. It just needs to offer readers a new look at things, and maybe cause them to say, “Hmmmm, that’s something to think about,” or “Aha, I know what this writer is talking about. I didn’t know anyone else thought that way,” or “Of course, why didn’t I think of that?” Good writing bestirs readers. It’s not necessarily supposed to make them comfortable. Or maybe after reading a piece, readers will take an opposing view, and even get angry. Many writers make a good portion of their living writing articles on opposing views of something they’ve read.
Of course I’m not talking about the type of anger that leads to violence, although Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple among others, once wrote, “Writing saved me from the sin and inconvenience of violence.”
When I began writing Survivors of Suicide several years ago, and later a revised edition, I was angry at those who blame on the victim, the family or friends or outside circumstances. I heard a minister during services for a suicide victim tell those gathered that the victim was going to hell. Having been a medical writer for a newspaper, I knew about ongoing research by suicidologists, and other mental health professionals throughout the world showing that in most cases malfunctioning brain chemicals lead to suicide. I saw the anguish of a friend whose son committed suicide, and what she had to deal with from others. But I was able to put my anger aside to write the book by interviewing dozens of researchers, and also family and friends who had experienced the loss of a loved one to suicide. But it was anger that triggered the idea for the book.
Use that anger, but then allow the experienced and consummate writer to take the lead, and turn it into something others want and need to read.