Being An Artist Doesn’t Mean You Get To Be A Lousy Person

By David Ebenbach

Here’s something we already know: A lot of artists are totally lousy human beings. There isn’t enough room here to list even a semi-representative sample of the painters, choreographers, composers, and writers who’ve betrayed their loved ones, crashed their cars, acted out pestilential addictions, shamed their families, broken serious laws, burned down their houses (metaphorically or literally), destroyed the organizations they work for, and generally left wreckage and misery behind them.

The list might even include you, the person reading this. All too frequently, people who are heroic on the page, canvas, or stage are villains in their own lives, or at least anti-heroes.

I confess. In my high school and college years I found this kind of romantic. I looked at my own tumultuous emotional life and abrasiveness and defensiveness and my many, many mistakes and thought, Well, hey — I’m a Writer, so, you know, get out of jail free and so on. I fancied I had “inkblood” — a term that I actually and ridiculously used in my journal more than once when trying to account for my sometimes-erratic behavior.

It was a nice way to convince myself that (1) I couldn’t help myself, because of some artistic temperament, and (2) really it wasn’t that I was a jerk; I was just a charmingly rebellious artiste who did things his own way.

I always knew, at least subconsciously, that this was dubious. And when I did unkind things I felt a lot of acute guilt for sure. But still — the rosy idea I had of myself persisted: I was an ultimately lovable scamp. Maybe a handful, maybe passionate, but, you know, had a heart of gold and was awesome deep down and blah blah blah, taking no responsibility, what can you do, I’m an artist please don’t hold me to any standards, et cetera.

Recently I dug up some of my report cards from elementary school.

When I think of myself in my younger years, I think of a creative and slightly wild, but decidedly compassionate, loyal, and righteous kid who believed in justice and standing up for others and just didn’t care for trivial rules handed down by incompetent authoritarians. (This is certainly how my mother talked about me.) And, to be fair, my early teachers did have nice things to say about my creativity and some other things as well.

But a number of comments weren’t so flattering.

According to my first grade teacher (whom I adored), “Sometimes the intensity of his own feelings makes it hard for him to take into account others’ feelings” and “his moods are quite strong and changeable.”

My second grade teacher: “David still teases and makes fun of another child in a way that is unkind . . . and becomes very defensive when it is pointed out to him that another person is being made unhappy.” (I don’t even remember who that teased child was, though apparently later in the year we became friends.)

Third grade: “David’s intellectual ability makes him impatient, and sometimes intolerant in dealing with other members of the class.” Another third-grade teacher describes my “high level of tension” and “physical lashing-outs.” My fourth-grade teacher pointed to my “difficulty cooperating” and “hurtful comments,” though she thought I did “work hard to remedy the difficulty.”

There’s no way around it: These are not descriptions of a nice boy with a mischievous streak. These are descriptions of an agitated and obnoxious boy. A mean boy. A boy who makes me hang my head.

And, sure, I was only a kid and those were hard years and all — parental conflict and then divorce — but I can’t claim the problems ended there. I think it’s fair to say that I was a volatile and snarky middle-schooler, more concerned with my own survival than the well-being of others. Then, although I was maybe a little calmer in high school, I spent my college years being (among other things, I guess) loud, arrogant, and changeable, and also a bad boyfriend to a series of very nice women, a habit that recurred off and on through grad school.

Of course, I wasn’t totally bad, and all of this came out of a place of personal pain — but I was bad enough. This was, again and again, my “inkblood,” an excuse that became more ridiculous each time it was needed.

None of this is charming. None of it. I think it can’t be charming to use one’s creative impulse (or even one’s pain) as cover for unkindness.

Now, somewhere along the way I did become a reasonably productive member of society. I married a tremendous and compassionate woman (who thinks of me as a nice person), became a father to an unbelievably kind-hearted boy (who looks to me as a source of moral authority), and I work as a teacher for wonderful writing students who take care of each other and learn community responsibility from, well, me.

What changed?

Part of it was, I think, the natural process of growing up. (Even the protagonist of A Clockwork Orange eventually mellows out.) But it was more than that — and here’s where I’m really talking to the rest of the artists in the world: Growing up into a decent human being was not an entirely natural process. I rebuilt my life from the basics upward. It involved years of therapy. It involved (involves) medication. Most importantly, it meant (means) losing the “inkblood” excuse; being a writer doesn’t mean I get to be a lousy person.

Not that the excuse is completely irrelevant — the lousiness and the writing are related, I think, though probably not in the direction I once thought. It’s not, I write so I get to be crazy, but instead, I’m crazy so I have to write. The writing helps me sort through all the feelings, think through my issues, see things from other points of view, empathize more, develop important insights, and so on. I think writing, far from being a useful excuse for bad behavior, in fact makes it easier to be more decent.

But I can’t emphasize this enough: Art isn’t enough to save the troubled person. Therapy, medication, establishing healthy relationships, prioritizing a stable life that encourages one’s own stability: These are the tools that really lead to well-being. And the point I’m making is that we’re obligated to do that, to get better. Artistic geniuses or not: We’re obligated to be decent human beings as well.

For some people, the fear is that being a good person will actually make it harder to be a good artist. After all, if our biggest heroes were supreme assholes, doesn’t that mean we have to be assholes ourselves? And in some sense this is obviously true; being a decent person requires, among other things, concentration and time. Being a good parent, for example, means spending time away from the easel to be with your child; being a good partner means taking the time to really listen to your partner instead of pretending to listen while secretly thinking about that problematic scene in your current play.

Yet in another sense the jerkface artist model is also obviously false. Being a deranged and lousy person can make it harder to do great work in many ways: It can create so much chaos, so much conflict, that you spend all your time just dealing with the mess; it can lead to practical problems (instability, unemployment, etc.) that get in the way of a devoted creative practice; it can even shorten your actual life through reckless behavior. Nobody has yet managed to write the Great American Novel after having died.

The jerkface artist model is also false in more complicated ways. I remain proud of my early work, which was mostly written when I was a wilder and lonelier version of my current self, but I have to admit that it’s a bit emotionally monotonous. Back in the day I was the King of Melancholy, writing directly (and only) out of the deep well of pain I couldn’t escape — so much so that multiple people asked me, “Hey — why is your stuff all so sad?” Now that I’ve gotten more of a handle on my life, the work I do is much more emotionally diverse. I still write the sad stuff, but now there’s a whole lot of other stuff to write about, too. My artistic landscape has gotten bigger, not smaller, as I’ve worked to become a person I can be proud of.

This is, of course, an ongoing process. My old tendencies are not dead so much as generally under control, and, in any case, you don’t attain decency by killing who you are. You work and work to find a balance between your needs and the needs of others. You work and work to find productive ways to inhabit the personality you’ve got.

You search continuously for healthy outlets, for reasonable ways to give your creative life the attention it demands. Above all, you make sure you don’t use your art as an excuse. Instead you turn your creativity both to your art and to your own life. You make sure that both of them lead to great and lasting works.

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