More on Suffering and Creativity

I’m reading a fabulous book right now called THE MAGICIANS, which is about a young man who’s recruited to attend a college for magicians. Not magicians as we know them—sleight of hand, illusionists, and all that—but real, honest-to-God, spellcasting magicians.

When our young hero graduates from the magic school, the dean addresses the class and explains why he thinks people become magicians.

As I was reading it, it struck me that it’s very similar to why a lot of people become writers or painters or singers. Changing the word “magician” to “artist,” here’s the dean’s monologue:

I have a little theory I’d like to air here, if I may. What is it that makes you artists? Is it because you are intelligent? Is it because you are brave and good? Is it because you’re special?

Maybe. Who know. But I’ll tell you something: I think you’re artists because you’re unhappy. An artist is strong because he feels pain. He feels the difference between what the world is and what he would make of it. Or what did you think that stuff in chest was? An artist is strong because he hurts more than others. His wound is his strength.

Most people carry that pain around inside them their whole lives, until they kill the pain by other means, or until it kills them. But you, my friends, you found another way: a way to use the pain. To burn it as fuel, for light and warmth. You have learned to break the world that has tried to break you.


I’m not unhappy now, but I certainly have been in the past. In my last post, I drew a delineation between the caliber of my writing before and after entering recovery for my eating disorder. Before recovery, I tried to use my writing as fuel to distance myself from my pain, but I hadn’t yet learned how to generate “light and warmth” from it.

The light and warmth, I think, comes from using your creativity for a higher, less selfish purpose than simply distancing yourself from pain.

For me to do that, though, for me to generate “light and warmth” and hope from the creative energy in my soul, my wound had to start scarring over. I had to already have some distance from the food addiction that had brought me to my knees and hurt me so badly for so many years.

I still know the pain of bulimia and binge eating and depression. It shaped me. It’s a huge part of who I am, and some form of it almost always carries through to the characters I create.

But the pain no longer owns me. Through the Twelve Steps, I’ve tamed the affliction that tortured me.

Harnessing that pain and channeling it into work that’s about tapping into the collective human experience rather than running from my own private agony is what allows me, today, through my writing, to “break the world that tried to break me” rather than the other way around.

4 Responses to More on Suffering and Creativity

  1. Chaz says:

    I think the observation here is that pain motivates. Pain also is an indicator of something that needs attention.

    I know I parent better than I may have because of the pain I still feel from having an absent and detached father. One who I could never count on.

    That pain has given my kids a Dad whose words and actions are virtually identical. Who can be relied on. Who arrives on time and does what he says he does. Who calls them to see how they are doing and listens to them when they talk.

    Although not an artist, I am a parent. And I believe my pain makes me a better one.



    • Chaz, thank you for sharing this awesome, awesome insight. Pain is absolutely a motivator, and we have to choose whether we’re going to let it motivate us to run away from difficult situations and hide in unhealthy behavior, or if we’re going to face our problems and fears head on. Your kids are very lucky to have a dad who chose to let his pain spur him to become the best father he could be.

      • Chaz says:

        Thanks Heather….

        Another thought that comes to mind is something someone in early recovery shared with me…. “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”.

        By this he meant that we will all feel pain at some time. Whether or not we prolong it and amplify it into suffering is a matter we have a choice in.

        Given this definition of suffering, I agree completely. I know I can take a small pain, particularly one caused by injustice, and stretch it long and wide. THank God I do this less and less. But I do trip into it from time to time and there is much room to grow still in this way.



      • Love this: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” Thanks for sharing!

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