Life is Good

By Richard Cox

Essay

This essay isn’t about anything tragic.

I won’t be writing about the economy, about being single and lonely, about a family member I’ve recently lost. I won’t be complaining about the ridiculous Republican primaries or how President Obama has decided the U.S. government can assassinate its own citizens without due process.

If you’re looking for something depressing and dreary, an essay that explores the deep and meaningless pain of being human, don’t bother reading any further.

When considering non-fiction essays, does personal tragedy somehow enhance the depth and beauty of a writer’s prose? If you suffer from a debilitating disease, if you’ve experienced the loss of a child, if you have survived some great natural disaster, does describing those terrible circumstances lend gravity to your art in a way that a happy, well-adjusted person cannot hope to match?

If I wrote about my mother’s thirty-year fight with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis, my poor relationship with her as a child, if I wrote about my painfully shy childhood personality, or my failed adult relationships, would that make for a more literary essay than if I were to describe my current, fantastically happy life?

Conflict drives storytelling, of course, in both fiction and non-. But if the very best stories are those that describe the saddest circumstances, I suppose I ought to give up any chance to win awards for my work.

Back in September, I wrote this essay about a new woman in my life. I wrote it, in part, because of a series of arguments I’d had with her that were mostly my fault. In fact, these arguments were so irrational and without merit and that I almost lost her over them. Most of the feedback I received about that essay, whether on the site or privately, considered it the best piece I’d ever written for TNB…which is interesting when you consider the thing exceeded 3,000 words and I wrote it in less than four hours. In that instance, conflict definitely drove the storytelling, and in fact pushed me to write with a sincerity, an openness that has often eluded me during my writing career.

So how to artfully render the delightful months that have followed winning her heart? How does one convey happiness that matters only to the people enjoying it? I could describe the peace I feel when looking into her eyes, or the protectiveness that comes over me when she encounters challenges. I could share the joy of buying her Christmas gifts, of treating her to a recent magical birthday weekend, of inviting her permanently into my home. I could tell you about her lovely 3-year-old daughter, whose friendliness is outshined only by her fierce intelligence. I might even be proud enough to share how the little girl is now able to freely quote dialogue from the original Star Wars trilogy and can also sing (a cappella) most of the songs on Def Leppard’s Hysteria. I might conveniently forget that I’d never really been interested in having children before meeting these two wonderful young ladies.

But you probably don’t care to read about those things. Happiness is cloying unless you’re the one experiencing it, and I can’t think of a good way to write about my new life in a way that doesn’t sound earnest.

Actually, that isn’t true. I could totally do that. I just don’t feel like being ironic and disaffected about something so beautiful.

Happy Friday.

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RICHARD COX is the author of The Boys of Summer, Thomas World, The God Particle, and Rift. He can be reached on Facebook or at his personal web site, www.richardcox.net.

48 responses to “Life is Good”

  1. Ashley (N.O. Lady) says:

    Mr. Cox, I loved this essay. I don’t think we, as readers and/or writers, gravitate towards negative situations as much as honesty. Usually, when we vent about a negative situation, we are open and honest. We are anxious to hear what others think bc we need validation and support. When we are happy, we don’t need those things. We are too busy being happy to give a rats ass, anyway. In this essay, you were open, honest, and happy and THAT, my friend, IS beautiful.

    And also, something we all enjoy reading. Good luck and stay happy.

    • Richard Cox says:

      Thanks, Ash. That’s a good point you make about honesty. Rants are typically that way, aren’t they? This is the opposite of a rant, but hopefully as honest. Thanks for reading.

  2. Becky says:

    In poetry, they’re called “heart farts.”

    Not officially or anything. Just by a lot of people. Or a lot of people I know, anyway. Heart farts can be about anything sentimental, but usually they’re love poems.

    Love poems that couldn’t possibly matter to anyone other than the person who wrote them or about whom they’re written.

    Think about saccharine facebook status updates, along the lines of “STFU Marrieds”.

    Or “STFU Parents,” for that matter. I know you know what I mean.

    The problem with them is not that they’re happy (or sad or lovey or whatever emotion is dripping from them) but that they’re not universal.

    So the question when trying to express ANY emotion (happiness included) is never, “is this emotion interesting,” but “why would it be interesting to anyone else?” (I don’t necessarily think this essay has that problem, since you couch it in terms of a literary controversy that has broad appeal.)

    As a friend, your happiness is relevant to my interests, so I’ve got nothing to complain about, really, except to say that even happy lives have their share of pock marks and dark spots, so I’d worry about anyone who went too long without encountering a pothole, in the sense that s/he is almost certainly stuffing something.

    Or a hippie.

    I have more thoughts on this, especially since the birth of my daughter, which has made me nearly happy (and busy and grateful) enough to almost distract me from my fundamentally hyper-complicated and generally serious (or at least dark-ish) attitude towards life.

    That perspective is largely what fuels my intellectual curiosity, my passion for arts and ideas, etc., so I think without it, I’m a genuinely less interesting person. That part of me is still there, watching, being bored at (but overshadowed by) the practical, uncomplicated me that has to be the one to run this Mother-of-an-Infant show.

    That darker side of me is just biding her time, though. I know myself well enough to know that.

    Still, until she rises again, there’s just not much to say, writing-wise. That part of my brain is simply not being allowed to engage with my world.

    • Richard Cox says:

      That’s the thing. I know when I post here, I have friends who will be interested no matter how compelling or well-written the essay. I couldn’t be more grateful or thankful for that. But as a writer in a public forum, if you’re producing compelling art, you should be able to reach an audience beyond that. And the key to that, it seems, is to tug at heartstrings by placing your pain on display.

      And yes, life won’t always be roses. For me or my fair lady or anyone. But should we wait for the valleys to produce art? Or should we render all of life on the page, regardless of where the needle sits on that particular day?

      I’m glad you’re temporarily insulated from the darker side. You’re even less interesting if that’s the only part of your personality you ever indulge.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        You’re even less interesting if that’s the only part of your personality you ever indulge.

        Ha! Not sure if this damning with faint praise, but since you feel this way, I’ll be watching for your interested, earnest remarks on my next facebook post about Lily’s naptime travails.

        • Richard Cox says:

          I just mean doing any one thing all the time is less interesting that varying from time to time. I shall endeavor to follow your FB stati more closely. Wink.

          • Becky Palapala says:

            I was just giving you a hard time. Because we’ve had so many conversations about the obnoxious conversational habits of parents–how we’d never be all about that–and now you’re like, “Parenting is teh cool.

            Giving you a hard time, and acknowledging that I, too, have succumb.

            Though looking at it now, it does look like a sort of pathetic plea for attention.

            WHY DON’T YOU “LIKE” MY STATI ANYMORE, RICHARD??? IS IT BECAUSE THEY’RE SAGGY SINCE THE BABY WAS BORN???

  3. Tawni Freeland says:

    Congratulations on your beautiful new roomies, dude! That’s really cool.

    I love seeing you so happy, my friend. This essay is awesomeness. And yes, I read the tags.

    xoxo.

    • Richard Cox says:

      Thanks, T-Money. I’m glad you read the tags. And I’m glad you got the chance to meet her. She’d love to see you again in a different light…for obvious reasons.

      • Tawni Freeland says:

        I’d love to see her again, too. And meet her adorable daughter. I’m thinking a cookout needs to happen this spring or summer, when the weather is warmer. We have a tiny house, but our backyard rocks. We could let the kids run free while we drink beers, grill meat, and laugh at my veggie burgers. (:

  4. Kim says:

    I think that the way you described your feelings towards your new ladies was touching, sincere, and very much something readers can relate to. I think if you’re hitting your audience in the heart, you’re doing a damn good job. That can be something tragic or something beautiful, sometimes a mixture of both.

  5. Mandy says:

    It’s sad that cynicism has gotten confused for intelligence. I think it takes far more wisdom to be happy.

    This is beautiful. You’ve got me all verklempt.

  6. Brett says:

    So glad you are happy!

  7. So, this reminds me — Hannah told me once that if she continues to live a “safe life” she won’t ever have anything to write about (this, by the way, was part of her argument as to why I should put her in public school, heh). While of course I like that you’re happy, I also like that you’ve raised the issue of writing from and about that space. As with anything, it’s all in how it’s done that makes it intriguing and literary and artistic as opposed to schmaltzy or cloying. I say, bring it on, happy Richard! And congrats on everything.

    • Richard Cox says:

      “It’s all in how it’s done” is totally right. And I was definitely thinking about that when I wrote this. It’s almost a bit (dare I say) meta the way I handled it. Like, Here, I’m going to write about how happy I am, but to do it credibly I need to have a discussion about why it’s okay.

      Thanks for the congrats.

  8. Andrew Panebianco says:

    This was absolutely wonderful to read.

    Thank you.

  9. Jeffro says:

    Honestly man, I love this. And I’m glad you’re happy. Happiness sure beats depression. Lately I’ve been pondering the whole writing/writing from the heart thing too; well, more so, the whole ‘how to write nonfiction when you live (and always have lived) an average, everyday life that you actually enjoy and, therefore, how to translate this experience into a story that others will want to read and find interesting without overdramatizing it, fabricating it, or simply lying like shit.’ Because the truth is growing up I didn’t have alcoholic or abusive or abusive, alcoholic parents; I’ve never been a drug addict; nor have I ever traveled the world or the United States because I’ve never even come close to having the money to do so, and thus, don’t have any interesting stories to tell from that perspective either, etc.

    But the funny thing is, since I began pondering this idea I’ve been writing like a mad man. I’m a father now. Sometimes, I’m going to write from that perspective. I personally don’t care if someone finds what I have to say literary. I happen to think there’s some funny stuff in there. This is who I am at this point in my life. Over the last few years, I’ve been preoccupied with death (my best friend died of brain cancer, followed by my dad dying of leukemia) and it has occupied my writing quite obviously, so much so that it seemed like that was the only thing I could get out of me when putting a pencil in hand.

    And while I think death and how it’s handled, the depression that goes along with it, etc. can be written about, I no longer want that to be the real motor in my writing, just one aspect. I like to laugh. I laugh a lot. I laugh all the time and am a very positive person. I want my writing to be laced with this same kind of humor, though not dominate it entirely. That’s what I’ve discovered when pondering the idea of writing and writing from the heart.

    Don’t be a writer. Just write.

    I’m glad you wrote this and I always enjoy what you post here. Like I said on Rich’s latest, it’s a breath of fresh air to read the positive. It’s so easy to go the other way and that is sooo overdone it’s ridiculous and unoriginal.

    • Richard says:

      “It’s so easy to go the other way and that is sooo overdone it’s ridiculous and unoriginal.”

      It almost feels sensational in a way, and yet no one would ever read an essay about a close friend or family member dying and say, “You know, it’s so overdone to write about the demise of your parents.” That would be heartless. But I wonder, when the praise comes, how much of it is sympathy versus actual praise for the writing. (Not thinking of anyone’s work in particular, just the idea of that.)

      Like, even though my childhood was pretty tame by most standards, I’ve got all kinds of painful stories from that time. I could lean on that if I wanted, “Woe is me! I’m so wounded!” but that’s not only trite but you can also come off looking like a wimp.

      Then again, death is something we can all relate to, and be fascinated by, or be frightened by, because it’s coming for all of us sooner or later. I think the inability to comprehend your own consciousness winking out is part of what makes it compelling.

      Thanks for your kind words. There’s nothing wrong with being positive. Sure beats the alternative, I think.

  10. Joe Daly says:

    I remember listening to NPR many years ago, and they were interviewing Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams’ old group. His partner in that group, Caitlin Somethingorother, said something along the lines of this, “Why write a song about being happy? That’s stupid? ‘Oh, I’m so happy! Let me write a song about it?’ That’s stupid.”

    Sadly there are people who confuse meaning with severity, be it in writing or music. I’m happy as hell that there are people like you who don’t mind pouring some sugar on it and enjoying the ride.

    Glad things are going well for you, man. This essay was a nice way to get my day started.

    • pixy says:

      cary. that would be caitlin cary. 🙂

    • Richard says:

      I think even in writing about being happy, you need to contrast it against something. I watched a film last night that for the first thirty or so minutes, nothing negative happened at all. It was just peaches and cream and it was very boring. Later, conflict arose and then the film seemed to finally pick up some momentum. The engine of any story is the contrast between positive and negative events, and even in this essay, to write about happiness credibly, I felt the need to couch it in a conversation about whether or not I should do it or not. Like if I just wrote the last couple of paragraphs, which are the most important to me, the essay would have no appeal to anyone else.

      Nice DL reference. Oh, and you should know we put the little girl to sleep every night listening to that DL Rock the Cradle album you turned me onto. She can’t thank you enough.

  11. James D. Irwin says:

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I generally lean towards writing more comic stuff, and I always feel that it is somehow less ‘worthy’ than dark heavy stuff on serious subjects.

    I always find it od though that in recent years the fastest growing genre of literature was stuf like ‘A Child Called It.’ Everyone just went fucking nuts for true life books about people who had had shit childhoods involving abuse.

    My thoery is that the best writing is always honest… They say a good writer can take any subject and make it interesting or entertaining… it doesn’t matter what that topic is.

    The one thing about writing in the realm of tragedy is that if you write it well enough the reader might feel more noticably affected by it… I don’t know…

    • Richard says:

      You know, back in the day when people commented a lot more on TNB, my most widely-read posts were the funny ones. And Slade drew a pretty big audience by writing humor. Even the highly-literate, serious crowd here at TNB loves to let their hair down. Otherwise you wouldn’t see a comment board devolve into a series of innuendo and dick jokes.

      You’re right, though. Anything honest and written well can be compelling. When you try to be something you aren’t, people can usually sniff you out.

      Thanks, JDI.

  12. James D. Irwin says:

    Also, Def Leppard are kind of growing on me.

  13. I think that personally my own writing is much worse when I’m happy… I don’t know if that’s because my style is suited towards being aggressive or snarky or whatever, or maybe it is just boring to talk about happiness. Like when rappers give up rapping about the difficulties of life and start rapping about their boats and mansions and stuff. I prefer whiny literature and angsty music and I don’t know why.

    It is an interesting question, though. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we don’t want to rub it in when we’re happy. We can write about going through hard times because our words might touch someone who’s been through the same thing, but we don’t want to say, “Here’s how I invested my money from my awesome job and managed to buy this fucking sweet island where I found oil and then met my super hot wife,” because maybe someone will read it and think, “Lucky bastard. I was laid off today.”

    • Richard says:

      Yesterday at a flag football game (American football), my girlfriend asked one of the players on my team what the score was, and he told her he wasn’t sure. Later, I explained to her that since we were winning 25-0, it would be considered bad form to yell the score to her where players on the opposing team could hear. I think what you’re saying is a little like that, like it seems like bragging or bad form to announce your good fortune.

      I think it’s all in how you do it, though. The way you handle it. If you have nothing to say other than how happy you are, that’s probably something you keep to yourself or maybe a Facebook status update. It becomes worthy of an essay on an online literary magazine when you weave something else into it.

      At least that’s what I’m telling myself.

      I was just about to post this reply when I remembered that I was laid off almost two years ago, and suffered the worst months of my life as my savings dried up. I wonder if, when you’ve suffered and written about it, if that allows more credibility to write about happiness that followed darkness? Or would anyone even remember previous posts? Interesting thoughts.

  14. jmblaine says:

    I sir, am a sucker
    for happiness.
    A cynic
    is only a failed idealist
    at heart.

    * also, a sucker
    for kids who
    can sing acapella
    Armageddon It

    • Richard says:

      That’s one of her favorites. Even though the lyrics are incomprehensible. She loves saying, “Come on, Steve!”

      Thanks, JMB. Howdy to you, sir.

  15. Dana says:

    I’m happy that you’re happy!

    Regarding some of the ongoing conversation above – I love humorous writing. Anyone can depress the shit out of me, but to make me laugh aloud while reading is not so easy. And I can certainly be touched by anything heartfelt, whether or not there’s tragedy involved. Sometimes all it takes is a beautiful expression of a connection two people share.

    It’s nice to be nice to the nice.

    • Richard Cox says:

      Nice to be nice to the nice. Nice way to put that.

      Being funny is tough. I only occasionally have the inspiration for something truly funny, and when I do, I write it down at once. People like Slade, who just write funny on command, that’s a gift.

      Except it’s probably also a lot of hard work we don’t see.

      Thanks, Dana!

  16. Gloria says:

    Happy Richard is my favorite Richard.

    I reflected heavily this last weekend on something my Shakespeare professor once said – “The difference between a tragedy and a comedy is the final scene.” I love this final scene of yours. It’s okay that it’s not tragic. All types of stories need to be told.

    • Richard Cox says:

      The most beautiful part of this story is it does feel like the final scene. The nihilist in me tells me to reserve judgment for at least 40 years or so, but the romantic in me says I’ve got years and years of denouement ahead of me.

      I spend a lot of time trying to to be earnest. It’s nice to finally indulge the romantic.

      Somewhere in L.A., Lenore just puked up her dinner.

  17. Bibi Chernikoff says:

    I suppose a happy story is more accepted by some readers depending on its point of departure; i.e., does the happy protagonist come from a happy home/life, or does the protagonist celebrate a newfound happiness after some kind of suffering? Should happiness in fiction and nonfiction be somehow earned?

    I cannot think of a decidedly happy book in my bookshelves right now. I am looking at the bookshelf behind me for any overlooked titles, but the first one I see is Alice Munroe’s “Too Much “Happiness.”

    • Richard Cox says:

      Believe me, happy stories usually make me want to puke. Or anything purporting to be sad, but is really a parable about the gorgeous truth of life. Tuesdays with Morrie comes to mind. Puke puke puke.

      That being said, told the right way, the stories that I always find myself coming back to are the ones with an earned happy ending. My all time favorite example of this is the BBC “The Office.” Being my first experience with Ricky Gervais, I never expected him to end the series the way he did, especially not after the dark places season two took us. So when Dawn returned to Tim as the schmaltzy Yazoo hit “Only You” played in the background…for me that was one of the most romantic scenes in any sort of fiction or cinema. Yes, I’m willing to admit it.

      I think it’s a good thing to have a high threshold for schmaltz. But occasionally something should cross that threshold. Otherwise, what’s the point of getting up in the morning?

  18. Don Mitchell says:

    Happiness is a good thing, Richard. I didn’t find it until I was over 60. You found it earlier. Don’t lose it!

    • Richard Cox says:

      I’m trying my best not to, Don! Amazing how something can be so amazing, and yet occasionally you find yourself subconsciously trying to sabotage it.

      P.S. I hate to sound too happy, but I turned in my G 35 recently and leased a 2011 BMW 335 coupe. I remember you being a car guy, I think. Now I understand the difference between German and Japanese performance cars. Wow.

  19. Irene Zion says:

    Ricardo, people aren’t always jostling to peer at the scene of an accident.
    I could read about your happiness every day.
    Your words light up from the inside.

    • Richard Cox says:

      Irene,

      Yes, they are. But sometimes they watch cheesy weddings on television, too. So this time I’m appealing to that sensibility.

      Also, thank you for keeping the light saber Gravatar for so long. That makes me smile.

  20. kittenpants says:

    Can I play Devil’s advocate and just point out that rather than straight up tell us about your happy situation, you focused most of this piece on (an imaginary, maybe?) conflict between the contentment you feel vs what you think others consider important subject matter?

    (I’m super happy for you and totally not hating. Just a thought.)

  21. Rachel Pollon says:

    The one downside of being happy, the thing that no one talks about, is how “Walking On Sunshine” is in a perpetual loop inside your head.

    (If it wasn’t before, it is now. ;))

    Happy happiness, Rich! It’s a wonderful thing!

  22. Sean Beaudoin says:

    I didn’t even read this. I’m just commenting to get credit for commenting. Next time, bring the tragic, eh?

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