Creativity Does Not Require Pain and Suffering

Photo Credit: Alice Achterhof

Van Gogh cut off his own ear. Virginia Woolf walked into a river with rocks in her pockets. We have all heard these stories. And many of us have grown to believe that in order to be a good artist, you need to be suffering; as if you are not a real artist if your depression or psychosis has not reached the point where you are willing to cut your own ear off or die for your art. So many artists have not gotten help for their mental illness because they thought it would take away their art, but most of the time, I have found that this is not the case. Art is not created through pain. Pain is not inherently required to create art. And, honestly, no matter how hard you try, unless you are over medicating, the pain probably won’t go away. It just becomes more manageable. We don’t have to keep on dating the people that will break us, or staying up all night obsessing over all the things we did wrong, or hiding in our closets crying in order to be good artists. I believe that we can be better artists by taking care of ourselves, and appreciating the love and support that is all around us when we create.

I am a firm believer in the myth of the suffering artist being just that, a myth. I went to music school, and every day I saw people beating themselves into the ground, burning themselves out so that they could be the best that they could possibly be. There was little to no life balance. Many students walked in to classes thinking they were a waste because, “I won’t be using sentence structure, writing resumes or measuring acoustics while I am drumming, and I am going to become a drummer.” Or they just wouldn’t go to class. They would practice 8 hours a day, until their mouths were numb, their knuckles bloody and their arms sore, and not sleep. Or if they didn’t they would use that as an excuse for why they weren’t good enough.

When I watched the movie Whiplash, I seemed to be the only person I knew who was completely and totally outraged. (If you haven’t seen this movie it was about a drummer who basically was trained by an abusive teacher and kept going back because he wanted to be the best.) I was so angry when the movie ended, that I couldn’t get into bed, even though it was 11pm and I had work the next morning. I stormed around my apartment until finally, I settled into the kitchen and made cupcakes, because I needed to do something with all my pent up anger, and yelling at the tv wasn’t going to accomplish anything.

Photo Credit: Derek Truninger

I was angry because this was the thing that teachers I looked up to, and now myself included, were trying to convince people not to do. We were trying to show students, you don’t have to work so hard that you feel like you are dying, beat yourself up and sacrifice everything to become an artist. Doing that will mean that you will burn out, become completely self-destructive, and probably even die an early death, if you are determined enough. This is the kind of thing that breaks down an entire life. If you die an early death, what happens to all that art you could have created when you were middle aged, or an old grandparent, sitting in a rocking chair, with all that knowledge and life experience to share? We don’t get worse as we age, we get wiser, stronger, more interesting, and we keep learning. That’s the point of the creative life, to keep making art.

When I started taking control of my life, started going to the doctor, got put on anti-depressants, started working out and settled into a routine of going to bed early enough to get enough sleep before work, I started getting more productive with my art. I started being able to sit down every day and face the pieces of writing that I needed to write, the ones I had been putting off for months. I found new ways in to challenging project and found creative solutions to paralyzing challenges. I started taking medication, and while I don’t yet know if it is the perfect thing for me, it has helped me feel seen and less alone, and that has validated me enough to make me realize that yes, my voice does deserve to be heard. This means that I am less scared, a tiny bit more fearless, when I approach my writing. And that is what I need to be, calmly courageous.

When I spend every day taking my self-care seriously, I am so much more creative. That creativity in itself, makes me feel better. When I make sure that I get enough sleep, have a day job that doesn’t make me want to pull my hair out or cry everyday (although some days it still does), take time to take baths, do things I love, take mental stock of what is happening in my mind, the more story ideas I have, the more I can write, the easier it is to connect to my characters. Most recently I have started being overwhelmed with ideas. I am in the process of editing one novel, halfway through another, and itching to start a third. I am writing this blog and coming up with other creative ways to do the things I love in my life. And I wouldn’t be doing any of this if I didn’t take the time to ask myself what I need, and if that means I need to stop writing, stop working, take a break, then I do.

Photo Credit: Hannah Morgan

I believe that artists often feel the world differently. I think we connect more deeply, which is why we create. It is also why there is so much rampant mental illness, low-self esteem, and addiction in the creative community. We face the world with different eyes than what is expected of us. We are not supported in every day society, may not know how to function within the regular world. But we have to take care of ourselves. Otherwise, we will be held captive, unable to move, to think, to create, to share what we have to share with the world. We need to support ourselves, and each other, so that our gifts will not be lost before the world gets to see them. I have never been a good creator when I am lost in a downswing. When it takes all of my energy to get out of bed and make a smoothie, how am I supposed to write anything real?

Am I Virginia Woolf? No. Am I ever going to be Virginia Woolf? No. But I have a story to tell, and a voice to be heard that, I hope, will resonate with some people. And while I may keep a few rocks in my pocket, to remind me what I am fighting for, I refuse to give up and make myself suffer, because my art deserves to stick around. I deserve to keep living. And it only gets better when I am honest about my struggle and take care of it, so that I get better too.

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