I keep a number of half-formed essays in the Drafts folder of my blog, adding to and weeding through my ideas every now and again. I have revisited none so often as this piece of writing about sadness, which has grown long and wild over the past two years and yet never blossomed into something lovely. As a result, I assumed I would never publish it. “I don’t think anyone would want to read about that,” I told a publishing friend last week, remembering with a shiver how bleak I had felt, when I had started to write it. “Of course they would,” she shot back, darkly. “Everyone wants to read sad things.” Only if they can be made beautiful, I thought. And what is it that makes sadness lovely?

“I think my next book should end in tragedy,” an author had told me a few weeks earlier. “All the most popular books are very sad,” she said cheerfully, having undertaken careless but convincing analysis of the bestselling books of the past few years.

“You made me cry” does appear to be the highest short-hand praise we can offer a writer these days. What we mean is: thank you, I lost myself wholly in your story – you unlocked something in me. In art of all kinds, sadness can be seductive. La Bohème is intensely, agonisingly, gloriously beautiful; the tragedy of Mimi’s death illuminating and inspiring its rapturous loveliness. Looking into the eyes of Rembrandt’s later self-portraits, we perceive beauty in the broken-ness we find there. And that is surely what the artist intended: to render his sadness beautiful; to show us the beauty in the complicated, shuddering gleam of his own feeble humanity.

But what is this beauty? When we encounter real sadness, it isn’t beautiful. Grief is the heavy boulder on your back that you may never put down, unless sleep is forgiving of you. Real loss is an endless humiliation. Depression is a poverty. Sadness makes you unbeautiful: tired and puffy, unmagnetic.

You might have been lucky enough not to swim in those bottomless lakes but we have all known someone who has. I used to think we all learned as children how to hold a sad person; how to put a small hand to a sad person’s back. I was wrong. The truth is that when most of us see the pale drawn ugliness of real sadness, in real life, we fear it: we don’t like to look it in the eye.

But we happily immerse ourselves in heartbreaking fictions, because when we read our sad books, we peer into the dark halls of grief; we press our faces to its blank walls; we put on its black cloaks and then we shuck them off as we close the story and open the door back out into the light.

Reading about fictional heartbreak is a controllable fix, yes, of course: a catharsis, a practice run. But it’s about connection too. The high of strong emotion makes us “feel alive and connected to humanity: connection is where our sense of worth and belonging comes from – the point of it all basically,” an author wrote to me when I asked her why she thought readers were exhilarated by intensely sad books. In reading heartbreaking fiction and memoir, in listening to soaringly sorrowful music, in looking into Rembrandt’s eyes, we get a shot of feeling intensely human without the twin experience of desperate misery or helplessness.

Recently I listened to an interview with Leslie Jamison – an expert in pain and how we transcribe it – who defined “wound” as “a place where the interior becomes exterior”. Perhaps it is only when we are opened up by hurt, either our own or others’, that we become open to the world: vulnerable to its dangers but also susceptible to its comforts. When we read heartbreaking fiction, are we yearning for the susceptibility of the wounded – for our own susceptibility to love?

‘Exquisite’ is how we describe the worst pain, and it is true that we can experience a kind of ecstasy in the freedom of our suffering: in the loss of proportion and safe ground and any idea of what tomorrow might hold.

A client wrote to me of the two novels she is developing. What they have in common, she writes, is that they both feature characters who are “wading through something so thick that it coats them, so deep that they have to stretch themselves to see above it”. What an effective description of suffocating unhappiness. And yet what struck me about my author’s metaphor was that the characters in her novels were wading – they were moving slowly through. They were stretching: they wanted to see beyond their sadness. Of course that is what we expect of the protagonists of our novels – that they move, push against, act, react. Swim, not sink.

Because when we are submerged by real grief, real sadness, it doesn’t act like the griefs we find in our novels: it doesn’t resolve by the end of the story, because there is no end to this story. What we need is encouragement from others to keep moving through. A good friend texted me almost every day during a low time, to tell me all the things I couldn’t remember or imagine for myself. One day she wrote: “I dreamt about you last night. We were swimming in a deep blue lagoon. And I woke up thinking that when you go down you go deep, but when you come up, it’s for longer, the sun is brighter and you are nearer the place you feel sure-footed.” She could not have been aware that she was writing herself into one of the watery metaphors I had been using most frequently in my journals, but after that she was swimming with me, pulling me along.

Because yes, when we are rigid with unhappiness, metaphor is our friend: I have written through such times prolifically, beautifully – not for others but for myself. Leslie Jamison compares writing a journal in bad times to “pushing on the bruise” but it is not just masochism at play: writing about one’s own heartbreak (or painting one’s own heartbroken eyes, in Rembrandt’s case) is a creative response to something which feels urgent and demands formulation. “Hard feelings can feel boundless before you put words on them,” she says. And it is true: naming something identifies its limits, and the edges of things are all one yearns for, when pain seems infinite. Howard Hodgkin said that the heavy and brightly painted frames around his paintings were designed to keep the fleeting emotions and memories captured therein “intact and protected”. Paintings have corners and sentences have endings – and sometimes all we can be hope for is endings. Sometimes, when you get to the end of a diary entry at the end of a bad day, you can sense something like satisfaction in the hurt. So much more manageable than the gnawing hunger that generally precedes it.

I wrote once before on this platform of the dark places we visit in our imaginations, referring obliquely to that lake in which I had found myself submerged, but some of my many metaphors for sadness are more architectural. If heartbreak were a building, it would be a series of cavernous dark chambers, linked by interconnected corridors in which you can only get lost. “You have to make a space for grief so it can be a place you can walk in and out of,” the poet and novelist Kei Miller gently advised at a reading and I wrote his wisdom down quickly, before I could forget it. I was relieved to learn that dwelling in hurt is an appropriate response to it: building four walls for grief through writing is a way of delineating it, giving it space to be real.

The thing is, there are some things that are only seen clearly in dark times; there are types of beauty which only emerge when the light falls elsewhere. The novelist Tanizaki wrote in 1933 in his exhilaratingly, shockingly, brilliant essay on the Japanese aesthetic, In Praise of Shadows, of how it is only in the dimmer light offered by candlelight that the true beauty of Japanese lacquerware is revealed, its “depth and richness like that of a still, dark pond.” Reading Tanizaki, one learns of the value of tarnish on metal, of paper that absorbs rather than reflects the light, of the importance of screens and heavy lantern roofs to shield us from the bright day, of how to read significance into the way dense shadows fall against light shadows.

When we write our way through sadness, it is the beauty of shadows we chase, just as it is the silence between notes that some of the most sensitive of composers seek to capture; it is the empty spaces which are articulated by the best architects. Without sadness, would we see this deeper truth of art at all? It is exquisitely – yes, exquisitely – human to use art to express loss: to render all emptiness beautiful. To eulogise a loved one, to dance in grief, to write a death-haunted symphony is at once a ritual of mourning and a celebration, an exaltation of the beauty of life which must necessarily pass.

Much art is testament to how astonishingly creative people can be, in the aftermath of extraordinary pain. Most of all, making beauty out of sadness is an action, and that’s what we need most when we stand inert in our walled rooms of grief: movement, progress.

Helen MacDonald, author of H is for Hawk, explained that she came to write about grief through the story of a goshawk because: “The imaginative flight that ensued was a way of escaping the unbearable difficulty of continuing to live with myself.” When I wrote to myself about sadness, I was not creatively equipped to fly but what I was doing was slowly walking on, because at a certain point, I knew I wanted to get out – out of the dark rooms, out of the blue shadow and into the yellow light.

That instinct to move towards the light through writing is the same impulse we have as readers to move into the darkened corridors of sad books. It took a friend to point out to me that when Kei Miller suggested we build a room for our grief, he wasn’t just suggesting that we construct four walls within which to stand, but crucially that we make sure one of the walls has a door in it – what he proposed was “a place you can walk in and out of”. We have to learn how to leave those rooms, just as we know to pick up books, and put them down again: to dive into stories, and then swim up for air.

As we travel back and forth between shadow and light, what we want is to make contact with one another – to turn to writing, or to reading, in order to exchange our experiences of life – because where writing and reading meet is a place of resolution and that’s beautiful. There is beauty too in our ability to define and then to defy the edges of things; to play across the boundaries of intense emotions; to explore the complicated shadows and to revel in the light.

Every human experience deserves to be made into art as grand and beautiful as mountain ranges, vast seas and long-grassed meadows. At my friend’s urging, my writings have finally blossomed, and though I fear I have a nurtured a messy little garden at best, I am glad to have finished my work, and to have transferred my writing from the closed room of Drafts out into the light, so that I can move on to creating something new. It’s spring now, and the days are growing longer, brighter. I am very happy to sit here in the shade with you companionably today: to feel the warm sun of your attention, to share briefly that connection my author spoke of: our shared understanding of what it means to be human.



The title of this blog is a quote from the play All the Angels by Nick Drake, in which Handel is told, of his new choral work The Messiah, that he will be thanked for breaking hearts.

The illustration is the painting Books by Howard Hodgkin (1991-1995). (Sidenote: this blog is A Small Thing But My Own.)

Leslie Jamison quotes are from Longform.org – Podcast #92