Suffering’s Role in Creativity

I’ve always fancied myself to be a creative person. A reader from a young age, I wrote my first “novel” in the fifth grade. I won prizes for my short stories in high school. I went to graduate school for creative writing, and I write for a living today.

For a long time, though, writing was something I had to do—as Maya Angelou once said, “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.”—but it wasn’t necessarily something I enjoyed.

You see, I bought into the myth of the suffering artist. I thought great art could only come from a place of pain. I identified heavily with Hemingway when he said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

I conveniently forgot that Hemingway killed himself, which is the most destructive act anyone can ever achieve.

*****

Suffering for my art took the form of bulimia and depression. Writing was less about connecting with the world around me as it was expressing my inner turmoil. I was miserable, and lonely, and angry, and I wanted readers to understand what I was feeling—if only in a fictional context.

I was too fearful, of course, to confide in anyone about my actual suffering. I was too ashamed of my eating disorder, too ashamed of my loneliness, and too proud of my misery (another Hemingway quote comes to mind to explain this bizarre pride: “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”) to let anyone see any of it.

I hugged it to myself. I petted it. I fed it and let it grow.

And I thought it would make me a great writer. The more you suffer, the more it shows you really care, right?

What I didn’t realize is that great art doesn’t come from the self-centered place of focusing on your own need to be known and understood. It comes from unselfishly sharing yourself so that others might better understand themselves and the world.

*****

After coming into recovery for my food addiction, I rediscovered Catholicism. There is a misconception that the Catholic Church teaches that all suffering is worthwhile and good.

Suffering in and of itself is not what’s good; it’s the empathy it gives us with our fellow human beings, the reliance on God that it inspires, and our willingness—like Christ—to “offer up” our pain to help other people that makes our inevitable suffering worthwhile.

Bringing suffering upon ourselves, as I did, with the idea that we—or our art—will benefit from it misses the mark. This is selfish suffering, the kind that produces neither endurance nor character nor hope. Instead, it isolates us from God and other people, leaving us bitter and hardening our hearts.

The longer I hugged my eating disorder to myself—the worse it got and the more I suffered from it—the more insular, and the less creative, my writing became.

*****

Since coming into recovery for my eating disorder more than 11 years ago, there have certainly been times when I’ve suffered through no fault of my own. The worst of these, of course, was my husband’s psychotic break.

And while that suffering has undeniably given me more empathy, a closer relationship with my Higher Power, and a true desire to help others, it has also shown me that great art doesn’t come from a place of pain.

It springs, rather, from the seeds of hope.

This post is part of the Self-Discovery, Word by Word blogging series for January.

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16 Responses to Suffering’s Role in Creativity

  1. Not sure I agree with this 100%. Yes, you don’t need to MAKE yourself suffer to be a great writer – that’s pretentious and foolish.

    But, as a reader I find that I can best connect with those who *have* suffered, in some personal way, writers who can be honest about sharing their pain and going to the dark places. It comes through in the work, even if the piece itself is light or humorous.

    Just my two cents. 🙂

    • I do, too, but I’m rarely satisfied when a piece of work ends on a hopeless note, which is what all my work did when I was suffering and didn’t believe there was a way out. Suffering connects us to other people—when we let it—but we don’t have to seek it out. It’s going to happen on its own.

      The decision then becomes whether to use our work as a bridge to connect with other people or an exercise in massaging our own pain. I think a lot of people, especially young people, who choose the “suffering artist” route are focused on massaging their own pain. I certainly was. Grateful to not be there today.

      • Point well taken! Seems like I read somewhere that no one should attempt an unhappy ending, unless s/he was a genius (Shakespears – Romeo & Juliet comes to mind.) I really have no interest in the “woe is me, life sucks and then you die” viewpoint on life – I guess it’s valid for some people, but it’s not HELPFUL, for me.

  2. Wow, Heather, another beautiful post! The last line gave me chills: “It springs, rather, from the seeds of hope.”

    Congratulations for being in recovery for over 11 years! That in and of itself is hopeful.

    I think your point about your writing becoming less creative as your eating disorder become more entrenched is so important. Eating disorders are serious illnesses and if they’re not treated, they weasel their way into your life and your identity.

    Thank you for sharing this!

    • Thanks, Margarita! When I was bulimic, I didn’t think my eating disorder had any impact on my life beyond my weight and my body image. It’s amazing how much perspective I’ve gained about the myriad ways in which the disease permeated every single aspect of my life—including my creative work, my relationships with my family, my spirituality, and even my personality! I couldn’t see it then, but boy do I see it now!

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Hi Heather!

    Great post!

    I too used to buy into the idea of the suffering artist with my writing. I guess for me it was a way to vent my inner pain and make some use of it. But moreover, I agree with what you said about how suffering serves to give us empathy towards our fellow man.

    Elizabeth

    • Thanks, Elizabeth! I love that I get to “make use” of my painful experiences to reach out and help other people today. When I was stuck in the middle of my addiction, I was so full of self-pity that I wasn’t able to empathize with other people—I was too focused on my own pain. Once I was able to break the cycle of addiction, though, my writing was infused with a new sense of purpose. I don’t think that’s the case for everybody, but it’s definitely been true for me!

  4. Chaz says:

    Amazing how we can let subtle suggestions and erroneous beliefs based on erroneous observations affect us so deeply.

    I have my own versions of what you wrote. I believe such subtly-adopted (invisibly-adobted) beliefs green-lighted my active alcoholism.

    My father was a conspicuous, embarassing, painful drunk who hurt us badly with his behaviour when we were growing up. I hated it and swore I would never do the same.

    But what happened when I got to stage in my life where pressures were extreme? I started to drink, just like was suggested to me by fathers behaviour.

    Glad to say we can gain an awareness of mistaken beliefs and learn new beliefs, patterns, and habits.

    Ciao.

    Chaz

  5. This is so beautiful. I agree that those of us who have endured a lot of pain – whether due to crises, trauma, or mental illness – can become so attached to our pain that it becomes hard to disengage. I love the way that you describe the role of suffering and how it can aide – but doesn’t have to define – the creative process.

  6. […] Heather @ Jumbling Towers: Suffering’s Role in Creativity […]

  7. elizabeth says:

    I am stopping by as a fellow participant in the Self-Discovery Series on creativity, and found your powerful post. The myth of the suffering artist is so firmly entrenched in our collective consciousness, that its true, sometime we bring the suffering unto ourselves in a mistaken effort to become more “real” as creative people. When I was challenged by my own ED, all of my art was so reflective of that idea…and as I began to heal, the art changed too!

  8. Janet says:

    Hi Heather,

    I can completely relate to the concept of art and suffering. I learned a profound lesson, early on, as a writer.

    We can use our art to teach, and inspire, and relate, but not to nourish our addiction to our plight. People see right through us and won’t tolerate the “whoa is me” story.

    So, I learned to use journaling — first — as a means to explore, analyze, and vent a situation, and not until I had, did I dare put it out there for others to see. They’re not interested in the rubbish. They’re interested in the truth.

    This past November/December I began to discuss my relapse into my eating disorder on my blog. But because I was writing about it for the wrong reasons, my symptoms increased.

    Once I changed my focus and kept my healing to myself, I came back with a healthier way to share my story.

    Thank you for your beautiful words and ideas.

    Cheers!

    Janet

    • Thanks for your comment, Janet. Such a great point about journaling—I definitely think it’s valuable to process our experiences (in a journal, with a therapist, through prayer, etc.) before trying to transform them into art. Otherwise, you’re right, we get weighed down in our crap.

      I’m sorry to hear about your relapse, but glad that you were able to refocus your energy on your recovery in your writing and your life. Best wishes to you for continued healing!

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