The idea of creativity and suffering are deeply interwoven in our minds. Very often we picture artists of talent or at least repute as reclusive, haunted, or brooding. Somehow, the idea of the tortured artist is seen as something romantic. This idea goes hand in hand with the idea that creativity and madness are inexorably interlinked. We suspect that at the heart of creation lies an ugly core of destruction, that the center of the gyre that fuels imagination is pain of one kind or another. Admittedly, this desire for a broken creator has a certain appeal. It’s an example of how even from the depths of sorrow and misery, something wonderful can emerge. It paints the creator as a sort of ubermensch, overcoming the shackles of his or her plight and rising out of the wreckage of his or her own life. Then there is an undeniable mysteriousness about creativity. The idea of inspiration to the Greeks necessarily implied madness as the muses or a god or goddess sent the artist into a frenzy of creativity and production. Even today, there is an aura of the divine and otherworldly in creativity. Even science is perplexed by the seemingly endless permutations the human mind can generate about any given subject. So even historically, creativity is seen as something powerful, perhaps too powerful for the person gifted with it, thus madness and pain ensues, much like Icarus getting too close to the sun. However, is this connection between suffering and art reflected in reality? Must one suffer in order to create something of beauty? I’d say no and that the belief that pain is a prerequisite for creating art is a harmful misconception that should be re-examined. However, I will say that there is, like most stereotypes, a kernel of truth to the idea of suffering and creativity being connected. It’s here that I’ll begin, looking at a few of the historical personalities that support the belief that one must suffer to bring great art into the world.
It isn’t hard to find examples from history of those whose talents have coincided with their curses. A prime example is Vincent van Gogh. Taciturn, withdrawn, thoughtful are words that could describe him. Another term that could fit is depressed. He finally took his own life at age 38. He is as famous for his beautiful works of art as he is for the famous incident in which he cut off part of his left ear. Sylvia Plath, author of the Bell Jar, a series of wonderfully dense poems killed herself as a result of her depression, though this was not the first attempt she had made on her own life. Interestingly, the Bell Jar can be directly linked to the trauma she suffered as a result of her husband’s infidelity and their separation. Ernest Hemingway was recorded as suffering from bi-polar disorder and finally took his own life after he had become ill. But don’t think that all artists end up killing themselves. Some live with their troubles and even overcome them. Stephen King was addicted to cocaine but managed to break the cycle. William Burroughs turned his addiction to heroine into the brain searing Naked Lunch. There are plenty of other examples. In fact, there are too many to list. But does this mean that madness, depression, addiction, and misery is the norm? The answer to this question is unfortunately a bit complicated.
Fortunately, we can say that creativity is not based on or contingent on the presence of illness or suffering though there is an unmistakable correlation between it and mental disorder. There are plenty of studies that show how artists are more prone to mental illness (and by extension comorbid disorders like drug addiction). But I can’t stress my first point enough which is that correlation does not imply causation and that one does not need to abuse substances or experience great tragedy or depression to write or embark on any creative endeavor. If anything, such things are baggage that, if left unfixed, can do more harm than good to the ability to create. If addiction muddies your mind with need or depression makes you see no purpose in doing something, especially something as mentally and emotionally demanding as writing, then you will get nowhere. The reason I bother going into all this is that some people think that the best, maybe the only way, to create something that will impress others is to destroy and that what they need to destroy is themselves.
Unfortunately, I’ve known people who thought that they needed to pick up an addiction or do harm to themselves to achieve their artistic aims but this, to me, is simply a misguided attempt to take the easiest route to achieve a difficult goal. One does not need to drink until his liver is a dried up shell of cirrhosis to write. I’m not saying alcohol or other mind altering substances provide no assistance. I’d be a liar to say these chemicals don’t contribute anything but they are or should be used mostly as ways to stretch ones mind a bit, maybe reshuffle the deck. But when used to excess they won’t contribute anything. But let’s say that you don’t fancy AA meetings in the future, don’t real artists have something to brood about? Shouldn’t there be some kind of dark past or a long lost love or something that drives the feverish urge for redemption through art? Honestly, I think you will be better served both as an artist and as a human to maintain a positive, open attitude. But without sorrowful ruminations, how can you present an honest, unfettered account of the soul of humanity? About that, listen, one need not be Caesar to understand Caesar. The nice thing about emotion is that by the age of five, chances are we’ve experienced every emotion we’re going to be encountering for the rest of our lives and you have all the experience you need right there. You know all about sadness even though you haven’t lost (I hope) your one true love. You know about desire even though you’ve never felt the burning drive to find another fix. And as you grow, you will unavoidably pick up negative experiences as well as positive ones. With the simple mundane experiences you’ve thus been accruing from day to day, you are already equipped more or less to tackle even the most extreme human states. And you don’t need to dive to the depths of desperation or melancholy to do it.
There is no shortage of emotional wreckage to be found buried in the pages of some of our most celebrated literature. Yet their creators’ stories should be looked at as examples of the ability to be creative in spite of suffering. There is undoubtedly some truth to the idea of art from adversity. Sometimes, an event can be so painful or a need can be so great that art becomes a cathartic experience and then we can say the art did come about as a result of the trauma. Or a person becomes so unhinged from substance abuse that he gushes the story upon the page. But these are instances we should hope to avoid especially when considering what happens after the pain has been exorcised. As Westley from The Princess Bride said, “Life is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Essentially, pain is just a condition of life, it will find us all at some point, no work involved. In that case, spend your time enjoying something, whether it be the company of friends, a book, a song, or a quiet spot that inspires you, where you feel “right.” (Though I suspect with most writers, it will be the places where we sit apart and observe that we feel most ourselves. We do tend to be more geared for introversion after all.) Besides, life is too short to waste much time being unhappy. As Bill Hicks said, “It’s (Life’s) just a ride. And we can change it any time we want.” So, make yours a hell of a ride and create something incredible.