Writing from the Core: Does It Have to Hurt?

More than fifteen years ago, I made a "career move" that changed my life and marked my writing. After I had two fairly well received middle-grade novels under my belt, my agent asked me if I would like to write for a new series. I clambered immediately onto my artistic high horse and told her from that considerable height, "Over my dead but unprostituted body!"

Cut to three months, three mortgage payments and three utility bills later: I began to experience a conversion of sorts, a change of heart. Or of mind, anyway. What would be so horrible, I asked myself, about a bit of entrepreneurial spunk? After all, I could call in my cards anytime I wanted, as soon as I'd earned enough filthy lucre to buy time to write pure.

SWEET VALLEY HIGH, and its endless spinoffs — SWEET VALLEY TWINS, SWEET VALLEY PRE-SCHOOL, SWEET VALLEY TOTS, SWEET VALLEY EMBRYOS (I'm joking about that last!!), were a huge commercial success, the first of the mega middle-grade series. I put my two children through college with the money I earned writing about Jessica and Elizabeth, blonde-haired identical twins who live in Sweet Valley, CA, where the sky is always as blue as the twins' eyes. I got letters from girls all over the country; I was a major draw at school bookfairs. Even today, if, in a moment of weakness, I confess to women in their twenties and thirties that I had a hand in some of those books, I get asked to sign autographs and even to pose for pictures.

But I lost something in the trade-off. I lost seven years. During that time, I stopped writing in my own voice, and I stopped closing my own wounds. I no longer wrote  about things I needed to know and feel; I no longer created characters who were, or could have been, me. Jessica and Elizabeth stole seven good writing years from me. And I let them.

Some writers could have come back sooner than that. Some writers would have been strong enough to fend off the corrosive, dangerous effects of golden hair and laughing eyes. But my voice wasn't developed enough, my language wasn't resilient enough, and clearly, I didn't know enough to come in out of that blazing California sun before I got burnt. By the time it was over and the money was spent, I not only wasn't, but I couldn't, write for real.

So, I am the perfect person to address you on the question of whether writing needs to hurt. I spent a great deal of time and energy, you see, writing things that didn't hurt at all. And now, after the fact, that makes me extremely sad. Because I have this panicky feeling I'll never catch up, never come close to writing everything I want. Now that I've finally reclaimed my voice, sidled back into the corrida and made a few exploratory passes with my new cape, there's only one thing I'm daunted by, one thing that frightens me silly. I'm not worried about getting gored or wounded, I'm not afraid of the next fight. What does scare me is the battle not fought, the book not written.

In a variation of the "so many men, so little time" conundrum, I find myself flooded with ideas, teased by countless characters, by books and poems and short stories that pop into my mind, that flirt with me, that reveal just enough of their uncreated shapes to tantalize, to leave me breathless. If I could finish each of these projects I dream of in a week, I'd still need two lifetimes to tackle them all! Which is why I always laugh at (and envy a little) writers who complain they have no ideas. It occurs to me this might be a generational issue, somehow; it's invariably young writers who wonder where the next book's coming from, and us crone types who pray for the time to write them all.

So, for me at least, choosing is crucial. I can't go off with every saucy story that insinuates itself into my consciousness. And the older I get, the more sacred I hold this business of writing, the more my choices count. Writing a book, after all, is a long-term commitment. It's a journey, and it better take me somewhere I've never been, somewhere that matters. It better take me to the lip of joy or the edge of despair, where I can use that cape I let hang, limp and ineffectual at my side, for too many years, while I picked my way across the surface ot things, feet high, toes pointed to avoid the mess, the blood on the ground.

I won't take on a story now, or a character or a poem, unless I smell a little blood and feel some risk. Unless my Duende gives it the nod. Who or what is the Duende? Nobody, anywhere, has given a more brazen, luscious description of the creative force that animates real art than Garcia Lorca. In his essay, "Play and Theory of the Duende" (which is now available in a beautiful little paperback edition, http://tinyurl.com/8x3o66t, which I suggest you sleep with from now on), Lorca defines duende as a spirit, brooding and passionate as Spain herself, that appears only when death is possible So, of course, the duende loves a bull fight: 

You can have muse with the muleta and angel with the banderillas and pass for a good bullfighter, Lorca says, but in the capework, when the bull is still clean of wounds, and at the moment of the kill, you need the duende's help to achieve artistic truth.

The bull fighter who scares the audience with his bravery is not bullfighting, but has ridiculously lowered himself to doing what anyone can do -- gambling his life. But the torero who is bitten by duende makes us forget he is always tossing his heart over the bull's horns.

Between Lorca's dark insistence on pain and Sartre's ironic approach, let me suggest there may be a slightly more salubrious alternative. First of all, writing in the eye of the storm, in mid-agony, is not only excruciating, it's probably counter-productive. It takes time and distance to reach the point where you can write about frightening or painful experiences. It takes seasoning before you can observe such experiences the same way you would your heartbeat or your meandering mind during meditation ¾ without judgement, without control, with acceptance and, if you don't mind my using a word much bandied about, with love. When you come back to experience in writing, you do what you couldn't do at the time you lived it ¾ you submit to it, you give yourself up without struggling. And inevitably you learn something astonishing.

So now, instead of Lorca's acrid, torturous duende or Sartre's sublimely indifferent Holy Ghost, let me propose a duende with a difference. My duende doesn't need to rake its sharp claws down my chest to get my attention. It often waits until a storm is long past or a person has dropped out of my life, before it taps me on the shoulder. It is a silent but insistent visitor, and (hallmark of this duende) it is patient; it keeps coming back.  I can try like mad to avoid it, flirting with other more seductive writing projects, doing volunteer work, picking fights with people I love. But it won't go away. Rather than diminishing, it grows in importance over time, acquiring like a dirty snowball, layers of associations and memories that stick to it. It usually makes me uncomfortable to look at it, because it is part me, part other. It doesn't tease or wheedle or command; it opens in front of me a path whose end I can't see, but which angles and curves and gets narrower and darker. And then she does this. (Beckon with finger.)

Besides being more patient and slightly less bloodthirsty, my duende can laugh. It finds comedy and delight, so long as they are rooted in human particularity and passion, just as creative and "artistic" as tragedy. It knows you don't have to beat your breast to write from the heart. Or with intensity.

You can prove this to yourself by reading Chris Lynch's wonderful books, Slot Machine and Extreme Elvin, or you can do this classic meditation exercise: The idea is to concentrate on the happiest moment you can remember (I usually focus on my daughter's wedding), and when you feel its energy filling you completely, switch to focusing on the saddest moment you can recall (unfortunately, I have several deaths of loved ones to choose from here). If we had time, I would love to have you try this now, but you can experiment with it later and if you do, I promise, you will find yourself crying at both the sad and the happy memories. In fact, the two experiences will feel very similar in effect, as if the tears had come from the same irrepressible force, the same energy that spills over in infinite variations, countless moments and lives, yours and mine.

So no, I don't think you need to write only about "big" issues (death, incest, abuse, drugs); I think you can write big about little things and have the same impact. If you focus deeply enough to find the core of any experience, you will end up taking the same journey, a journey that moves toward resolution of the temporal and the timeless, the indivdual and the cosmic.Everyone of us, after all, is dying every minute that we live, and that fact alone invests each of our moments, great and small, with poignancy. It makes, as William Carlos Williams says, "so much depend upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water/beside the white chickens."

Okay. It's all very fine and romantic to talk about the duende or the Holy Ghost or even my patient prodder. But we're technicians as well as writers. So let's get down and dirty. How do we recognize our own duende's handiwork? How do we know we're writing from our core? I once had the tough task of handing a manuscript back to a dear friend and saying, "There's no blood on these pages." My friend, who had already published several short stories and reams of criticism, was appalled. "What do you mean?" he asked me. "I worked harder on this than anything I've written." And then he added the clincher. "I cried when I wrote it!"

If sweat and tears aren't enough, how do we recognize the bloody footprints of the duende? I'm going to give you my checklist. It may not be the same as yours, and like everything said from a lecturn, it's subject to the quirks and frailties of the speaker. But for what they're worth, here are five traits which help me spot duende in my own and other's work:


1. Duende is specific, so individualized and particular it hurts.

2. Duende transcends the particular, because its one special case is generous enough,   real enough to include you and me.

3. Duende is intense, with an intensity born, not of control, but of surrender.

4. Duende resonates, effecting a change that stays with both the writer and the reader.

5. Duende is imperfect and knows it. Behind all work marked by duende is humility in the face of the inexpressible.


As soon as I'd put this list together, I noticed something very interesting about it. It comes close to mirroring the qualities of what Abraham Maslow, in his famous book, calls "peak experiences," moments of religious or spiritual enlightenment. It also parallels the oneness experienced in the state of samadhi or yoga. As we go down this list in a bit more detail, be on the lookout, then, for the ways in which the spiritual and the aesthetic overlap time and time again:

1. When you write from the core, you are specific. You deal with the particular, and that particular is, in one way or another, you. Your characters, your settings, your plots are all drawn, of necessity, from the rich mine of what you yourself have seen, done, thought, learned, imagined, overheard, hated, loved or run from. You can write about a barn, but unless it smells of wet wood the way your sister's cabin in Maine does, unless its stalls have all been kicked away at the bottom the way the stables were when you took riding, unless bats hang from its rafters, with all their little claws folded as if they were a congregation praying upside down, unless, in short, the barn comes from you, it won't have duende.         

Remember the description of the barn at the beginning of the second chapter in Charlotte's web? It's a long, catalog-like list of specifics, down to and including every piece of equipment that's stored there. This passage has been criticized as meandring and unnecessary, but I think it does just what White meant it to do. Like all fine writing, it seems to me, inevitable. I can't think of a better way to get at the feel of a working barn, at the hugeness, the all encompassing, life sustaining nature of the place.

How close this passage, this litany of details is, to the process described by the ancient yogic sage, patanjali. Patanjali says that by focusing repeatedly and intensely on the outer material layer of things, we can reach what he calls "the subtle essence within." He also suggests that by concentrating on the mind's perception of the object, we will eventually become aware of the simple otherness of the ego and the object.

This seems to me to be just what happens in haiku. These poems, steeped in zen tradition and replete with duende and with specifics, are characterized by a loving  (in the sense of accepting) but detached seesawing between the observed and the observer, between an objective and subjective view of the world ¾ all achieved by focusing on a few, carefully chosen particulars: From Ryota: "No one spoke, /the host, the guest,/the white chrysanthemums." From Issa: "If my grumbling wife/were still alive/I just might/enjoy tonight's moon.

Is your specificity the work of duende? Here's a test: Ask yourself: Do I already know what this place looks like? Do I already know who my character is? Or am I writing to find out? (If you're taking a trip to somewhere you haven't been, if you're learning about yourself from the world you create, then you're probably writing with duende.)

2. Duende transcends the particular. Its specifics are capacious, real enough to include you and me. The artists of southern Spain, Lorca insists, whether they are Gypsy or flamenco, poet or painter, know that no emotion is possible without the duende:

The Andalusian singer Pastora Pavon, La Nina de los Peines, dark Hispanic genius whose powers of fantasy are equal to those of Goya or Rafael el Gallo, was once singing in a little tavern in Cadiz. For a while she played with her voice of shadow, of beaten tin, her moss-covered voice, braiding it into her hair or soaking it in wine or letting it wander away to the farthest, darkest bramble patches. No use. Nothing. The audience remained silent.

         As though crazy, torn like a medieval weeper, La Nina de los Peines got to her feet, tossed off a big glass of firewater and began to sing with a scorched throat, without voice, without breath or color, but with duende. She was able to kill all the scaffolding of the song and leave way for a furious, enslaving duende, friend of the sand winds, who made the listeners rip their clothes.

         La Nina de los Peines had to tear her voice because she knew she had an exquisite audience, one which demanded not forms but the marrow of forms, pure music with a body so lean it could stay in the air. She had to rob herself of skill and security, send away her muse and become helpless, that her duende might come and deign to fight her hand to hand. And how she sang! Her voice was no longer playing, it was a jet of blood worthy of her pain and her sincerity, and it opened like a ten-fingered hand around the nailed but stormy feet of Christ.  

Whew! Sure beats Rilke's letter to a young poet, doesn't it? But, despite the beauty of this passionate treatise, how seriously are we to take it? Do we really need to buy into this tradition of the suffering artist? Must everything be broken glass and open veins? As a sort of antidote, let me quote from the surprisingly funny, warm autobiography of Jean Paul Sartre. If you haven't read The Words, I recommend it. What's most relevant for us is a passage in which the aspiring young writer, Jean Paul, who was all of ten years old at the time, imagines himself chosen by the Holy Ghost (which is, I suppose the French Catholic equivalent of the Duende) to be a Suffering Writer:

The Holy Ghost was observing me. It so happened that he had just reached a decision to return to Heaven and abandon human beings; I had just about time enough to offer myself; I showed him the wounds of my soul, the tears that drenched my paper; he looked over my shoulder and read, and his anger subsided. Was he appeased by the depth of my suffering or by the magnificence of the work? I said to myself, by the work, but secretly thought, by the suffering...The word genius had always seemed suspect to me: I went so far as to conceive a loathing for it. Where would the anguish be, where the ordeal, where the foiled temptaion, where, in short, the merit, if I possesssed the gift?...I accepted my appointment on condition that it be based on nothing, that it shine gratuitously in the absolute void. The Holy Ghost and I held secret meetings: "You'll write," he said to me. I wrung my hands: "What is there about me, Lord, that has made you choose me?" — "Nothing in particular." — "Then why me?" — "For no reason." — "Do I at least have an aptitude for writing?" — "Not at all. Do you think that the great works are born of flowing pens?" — "Lord, since I'm such a non-entitiy, how could I write a book?"— "By buckling down to it." — "Does that mean anyone can write?"— "Anyone. But you're the one I've chosen."— I was elected, branded, but without talent; everything would come from my sorrows and long patience...I was faithful to nothing but the royal commitment that was leading me to glory by way of torment.    

It is the greatest of life's contradictions, perhaps, that when we are most focused on our physical being, we see beyond it into the nonphysical, timeless, the universal. Just as deep meditation takes us to the place where the observer self dissolves, so the boundaries between reader and writer are dissolved when the latter is able to help the former focus on the present, on the senses, and on what we are holding in our hearts and minds at the moment.

What Bennet says about writing and meditation, Maslow says about peak experiences:

In peak experiences, there is a tendency to move more closely to a perfect identiy, or uniqueness, or to the idiosyncracy of the person or to his real self.

But it has also been discovered that precisely those persons who have the clearest and strongest identity are exactly the ones who are most able to transcend the ego or the self and to achieve a unitive consciousness, a sense of the sacred glimpsed in and through the momentary, the secular and the worldly.

When the duende writes of the particular, then, it leads, as inevitably as water tumbling down a falls, to the universal, to a state where observer and observed are one. Hear how this happens to e.e. cummings as he watches an organ grinder's monkey:

(if you toss him a coin he will pick it cleverly from, the air and stuff it seriously in, his minute pocket) Sometimes he does not catch a piece of money and then hismaster will yell at him over the music and jerk the little string and the monkey will sit, up, and look at, you with his solemn eyes blinky eyeswhichneversmile and after he has caught a, penny or three, pennies he will be thrown a peanut(which he will open skilfully with his, mouth carefully holding, it, in his little toylike hand) and then he will stiffly throw the shell away with a small bored gesture that make the children laugh.

but i don't, the crank goes round desperate elves and hopeless gnomes and frantic fairies gush clumsily from the battered box fatish and mysterious the flowerstricken sunlight is thickening dizzily is reeling gently the street and the children and the monkeyandthe organ and the man are dancing slowly are tottering up and down in a trembly mist of atrocious melody—tiniest dead tunes crawl upon my face my hair  is lousy with mutilated singing microscopic things in my ears scramble faintly tickling putrescent atomies, and

i feel the jerk of the little string! the tiny smiling shabby man is yelling over the music i understand him i shove my round red hat back on my head i sit up and blink at you with my solemn eyeswhichneversmile…

Does what you've written cherish the particular and transcend it at the same time? Here's my litmus test: Can you summarize what you've written in 25 words or less? Is Cummings' poem about feeling sorry for a monkey? Being a monkey? Animal liberation? Dependency? Oppression? If you can successfully capture your work in a few words, my advice is, do it. But if you can't, if you're trying to express what can't be expressed, to merge the temporal with the timeless, to find connections, meaning, truth in the chaos of existence, you're writing with duende.

3. The duende is intense, with a passion born, not of control but of surrender. You'll hear this faculty forever talking about character-driven fiction. We hammer away at this point because if you give your characters their head, if you trust them by falling into them, you turn your story over to the parts of you that need to speak, to act, to close old wounds. Maslow tells us that cognition in the peak experience is "much more passive and receptive, much more humble, than normal perception. It is much more ready to listen and much more able to hear. In the peak experience, such emotions as wonder, awe, reverence, humility, surrender, and even worship before the greatness of the experience are often reported."

WAITING FOR CHRISTOPHER, one of my YA novels, involves a young woman who kidnaps an abused baby. A wise friend and fine writer told me long before the book was even half finished, that there was a danger, in this plot, of theme overwhelming character, of motivation being subordinated to agenda. In other words, I would need to let duende in and control out.

Because Norma Fox Mazer was a fine writer and because I trusted her, I let my character take me where I did NOT want to go. Together, we went to the edge, to a time when Feena, is forced to abandon the simplistic view that she is the baby's rescuer  and his mother is an abuser with a capital A. It took a lot of freewrites to overcome my resistance, but Feena and I finally wrote a scene in which she herself, feels helpless before her own anger and irritation at the child she's saved.

Once I looked at the character, not the situation, once I turned in, not out, I replaced agenda with duende. Each time you write, if you don't give yourself to the moment, if you don't experience it in your own inner present, you lose and your reader loses. You give less and get less. It's that simple, that terrible.

So the test here is easy: Were you in control when you wrote? Did what you planned happen? If your answer is yes, you might possibly have written something beautiful, something graceful, but you didn't follow your duende over the cliff.

4. The Duende is resonant; it effects a change in you and your readers. "To have a clear perception," says Maslow, "rather than an abstract or philosophical conviction, that the universe is all of a piece and that one has his place in it —one is a part of it, one belongs in it — can be so profound and shaking an experience that it can change a person's character forever."         

I think writers may have a more intense fear of death (or love of life) than other folks. I think we write (and read) to find out what's noblest and strongest and most resilient about life, what survives. Each time we write a life and see it through trials and tribulations like our own, we find something sacred, something enduring in our natures. Each time we finish reading a book and catch ourselves coming back to the same scene over and over, it is usually to a moment when what we feel and think about life is, like light shining through a leaf, changed and transformed by the particulars of what we've read. (We can all think of scenes like this, moments when a writer's duende has invested life with risk and beauty and meaning. For one of my favorites, I refer you to the funeral scene in Oliver La Farge's Laughing Boy, a Pulitzer prize winner in 1965.)

The test for this aspect of duende, then, is simple and unfailing. "Am I the same person I was before I wrote this? Do I believe the same things, feel and think the same way? (Or if you're appraising someone else's writing, in workshop, say, the question becomes, "Am I the same person I was before I read this?")

5. Duende is imperfect; it deplores the distance between savage, untameable experience and what's on the page. Like T.S. Eliot and Prufrock, it mourns the gap between the dream and the deed: 

     And would it have been worth it, after all? 
Would it have been worthwhile, 
after the sunsets and the door yards and the sprinkled streets? 
After the novels and the teacups and the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern had thrown the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
"That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant at all. "

The test question here: Have I done it? Have I actually written what I meant, captured what I intended, spoken my truth? If your answer is yes, you may have written something inspired by a muse or an angel. But if you wrote with your duende peering over your shoulder, goading you, tickling you with its feathery wings, your answer will invariably be, "Not even close. But wait, listen, I think I know another way…"

I framed the title of this "lecture" as a question, "Does it have to hurt?" Let me close with my answer, one you may or may not feel works for you. It doesn't have to hurt, but it does have to matter. It has to matter so much that it scares you. Denial and blocking, as I proved when I wrote SWEET VALLEY, are never scary. But they dam up everything— the good and the beautiful as well as the unpleasant and frightening. Once you write your hurt or your fear, you find out who's feeling it, what your voice really sounds like. That doesn't mean you're stuck in the mire. It means you write THROUGH it, come out the other side, and live to tell the tale. Or write the book. And it can be a funny story, a wondrous, optimistic book. All because you redeemed life, by facing it, feeling it, loving it. Every bit.


© Louise Hawes 2022