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.