You must suffer to create: the myth of the suffering artist
When I was an angsty teenager, this was considered self-evident.
It probably first came from one of my high school English teachers: you must suffer to create.
The history of literature and the arts, of course, was full of suffering geniuses to back him (or her) up… Sylvia Plath with her head in the oven, Van Gogh dying poor and miserable, a failed painter.
Then came the kicker: we (the class full of hopeful youngsters) were from the suburbs, and therefore had not suffered.
It followed that nothing interesting would ever be created by any of us.
Better to get a job in some big company, and then just rot for the next 40 years, they said, with that optimism of people who had grown up in the 60s, when “steady employment” seemed like a feasible goal.
(My teachers actually said this. I couldn’t – and still can’t – believe how fucking stupid the average adult was when I was growing up, but I guess that’s another story.)
Anyway, is it true?
Must you suffer to create?
I’ve got a sort of roundabout answer.
Find me someone who doesn’t suffer.
Elizabeth Gilbert – who wrote a novel called Eat, Pray, Something-or-other – dealt with this little cliche in her highly recommendable book, Big Magic.
Because she was told the same thing by a “beloved” English teacher when she was young.
“You’re a talented writer, Liz. But unfortunately, you’ll never make it because you haven’t suffered enough in your life.”
“What does a middle-aged man know about a teenage girl’s suffering? I’d probably suffered more that day at lunch than he had in his entire lifetime. But beyond that – since when did creativity become a suffering contest?”
The fact is, everyone suffers in their way.
And just because your (or my) suffering doesn’t happen to involve smoking cigarettes in cold a Parisian garret in the 1930s, or chopping off your ear in an absinthe-fueled psychotic episode, doesn’t mean you’ll never make it as an artist.
And by the way…
Please don’t go out of your way looking for suffering
Your current suffering is more than enough.
Once, while travelling in northern California, I met a girl named Lily.
She’d grown up in Vermont (a nice place by all accounts) and decided, at an early age, that she wanted to be a poet.
But because you must suffer to create, she’d left home and acquired a heroin addiction – like her hero Arthur Rimbaud, she hoped to achieve poetic vision through “derangement of all the senses”.
Last I saw her, she was high as hell, and nearly passed out on a bench, along with her junkie boyfriend.
Whether or not she’s since hit the big time as a visionary 21st century poet, I don’t know.
(And who really wants to be a poet anymore, anyway? Word on the street has it that the kids these days all want to be YouTubers.)
Picking up a heroin addiction is a pretty bad idea, obviously…
But I could see the logic.
Young people have dreams. And “well-meaning” adults try to crush those dreams… with vague generalities about suffering artists, and how nobody from this neighborhood could ever create anything meaningful.
So what’s a kid to do?
Society wants good workers, who’ll sit under flourescent lights for decades while slowly dying of boredom.
But not everyone is willing to do that.
Some people, myself included, feel compelled to create.
And we’re not going to let well-meaning adults talk us out of it. We’re not going to let our being from a suburban wasteland “where nothing ever happens” get in the way.
They Myth of the Suffering Artist
Over on the guardian, AL Kennedy’s got an article called “Why I hate the myth of the suffering artist”.
In it, she says, “It can seem that wearing black, moping, engineering car-crash relationships and generally being someone nobody wants to sit beside on the bus could be a shortcut to writing success.”
But not really.
The key, as she points out, is effort and focus.
Suffering isn’t some magical key. Lots of people suffer their whole lives, and end up as plumbers rather than poets.
Just sit the fuck down and write.
P.S. I haven’t been too active here recently… but I’m gonna try to get back into the swing of things. Anything you want to read about? Let me know… Thanks!
P.P.S. Okay, so now I’ve got some more to share. How about part 4 of my life story? I call it The Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Enjoy.