We have hundreds of models to reinforce this idea—the sufferings of Van Gogh, the tortured drunkenness of Faulkner, the suicides of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, all of whom gave us brilliant art. Ergo, to make great art, one must suffer.
Unfortunately, all of those artists were mentally ill, depressed or bipolar or schizophrenic or alcoholic. Most likely, they produced their work in spite of their demons, not because of them.
There is an undeniable link between some forms of mental illness, particularly bipolar disease and depression, and creativity, and some theories say that high creativity is a variation on the same genes. That may well be true, and could be a great discussion point for a later date, because we don’t really understand creativity or where it comes from or why it happens, but for now, just hold the thought that so many of our models of great artists in history involve images of great suffering.
What if instead of suffering, we counter with the idea that creativity is healthy and expressive, and if we practice giving it space and time, it will bring great joy and peace into our lives (and no doubt the world)? Not happiness, necessarily, which is an overrated quality, but the deep satisfaction of a job well done.
What if creativity is completely natural and learning how to use it means simply giving it space and time to breathe?
I’ve been writing novels since I was twelve years old. At first, I did it completely out of a need to tell myself stories. I wrote longhand, whiling away the hours escaping into the worlds I made up. Over time, I developed habits and methods that were suited my temperament. Most of us, left to our own devices, do. I didn’t know I was supposed to suffer for my work, so I didn’t. I just wrote and wrote and wrote, and along the way, figured out what worked for me on a purely functional level.
So when I write novels now, I have methods of world building and character development, and my life is arranged in a way that supports those methods. I know, for example, that I have to have a good long period of brewing before I start writing. I have to know who the characters are and what the settings feel like; I need to be able to mentally move around there, as a particular character, before I can start. It’s thin at first, of course. The writing builds the world as I show up, day by day.
Let me say that again: the writing builds the world as I show up, day by day. I have to show up and start writing for that to happen.
Because I’ve been doing this for a long time, I’ve also had the reinforcement of knowing that good things will probably happen if I just make myself go to my computer or page and do some writing. Often it feels like I have nothing to say, that I don’t know where I’m going, but if I just sit down and write a couple of sentences, even really bad sentences, even sentences that say, “I have no idea what to write today but I have to get going,” eventually I’ll have some other sentences that follow along. Eventually, I’ll realize that I’m standing in that world, not this one.
Writing is not easy, necessarily. Sometimes, it feels like being lost, alone, in the middle of the forest. At those times, I just write one sentence at a time. I stand back and read what I’ve written the last few pages and write “the next true thing,” as Hemingway said.
But you don’t have to suffer. If you are suffering, if it’s very difficult to get the words on the page, if you struggle over and over again, step back.
Name your suffering. What is the struggle called? It’s probably not “writing.” It might be “too many obligations” or “my family is unsupportive” or “this is the process for me.”
But also ask yourself if there is some payoff in the idea of the suffering artist for you. Maybe it allows you to indulge behavior that you wouldn’t if you only thought of yourself as an accountant.
Maybe, too, you’ve set impossible standards for yourself, in any number of directions. If you compare yourself to your favorite writers, who’ve no doubt been practicing the art for a long time, you are bound to suffer. You will never be another writer, first of all, and second, you wouldn’t expect yourself to be Serena Williams if you’d just been playing tennis for a couple of years.
Another expectation that can make writing seem like suffering is trying to write more than you can actually write in a given season. We all have intense deadlines sometimes, and have to work extra hard to meet them, but that’s not the same as setting yourself up to fail by continually expecting yourself to produce more than you can comfortably do. We all have a natural pace, both in terms of how the work moves through our minds, and how our lives allow us to get that work on the page. Find out what that natural pace is for you and honor it.
The other idea that sometimes gets in the way is that writing or painting or other art is somehow different from other work—it relies on flashes of brilliance or insight or blazing inspiration.
It doesn’t. Those moments certainly can occur and they’re fabulous, but mainly making art is like planting a garden or making dinner. You have steps to follow, and certain ingredients or tools, and you employ them in an ordinary way to get a result.
Great art is made by showing up, day after day after prosaic day.
Suffering can seem romantic, but in the end, it doesn’t accomplish much. It holds us back from making the great and small art that each of us have inside of us.
Have you ever found yourself believing in the idea that you have to suffer for your art? Can you think of healthy, happy writers and artists? What other beliefs feed into this notion?