You’ve seen it in the musician living a life of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, you question why an artist willingly accepts small pay for creative work and lives a substandard lifestyle, you read the work of writers and poets who dwell in the pit of their own sadness because of how convenient (and sellable) it is to write about, you’ve probably met an advertising creative who believes that overexerting himself through long hours and being dependent on cigarette breaks to relieve stress is a display of passion, and you’ve read about the fate of the Vincent Van Goghs and the Amy Winehouses of the world—this is the archetype of the tortured artist.
The tortured artist believes that their pain is necessary for them to create. Their inner demons, their sufferings, all their hurt—they all serve a higher purpose as their creative muse. For the tortured artist, Van Gogh’s “turn your pain into art” is taken so literally that it fosters in the belief that in order to make art, you have to be in pain.
Before anything else, I just want to be clear: I’m not saying it’s wrong to transform your pain into a source of inspiration for creative work. For many of us, it has been our only way through, and has thus, been necessary. It might be something that we need to do in order to process our pain. That is something I do not invalidate or look down upon.
However, for the sake of our own healing and our own preservation, a line has to be drawn. We have to be wary of channeling our pain to create so much we become dependent on it, and we begin allowing it to overstay its welcome into our lives just because we have found a use for it. At one point, we have to make the decision to stop believing of the destructive myth that we cannot create great work without it.
Introducing: ‘the un-tortured artist.’
Feeling the grief without attaching yourself to it.
I do not mean, of course, that the polar opposite is a better alternative, in which we deliberately choose not to feel the pain but instead sweep it under layers and layers of distractions and temporary fixes. Feeling the pain is necessary. You have to process the emotion before you understand it.
This is where its use comes in. Go through the motions of processing the pain in the way that makes the most sense to you. Write about it. Create artwork inspired by it. Go through hours and hours of songs and make a playlist that helps you deal with it.
I can remember times when words spilled out of my mind at my lowest points, or how some of my favorite songs were discovered when I was heartbroken and scouring Spotify for a song that would be perfect to cry to. There are the stories of the likes of Frida Kahlo—whose best paintings were those that depicted her physical ailments—or even Adele, whose albums singing of her failed romances became heartbreak anthems adored by the world.
There’s no denying how grief, heartbreak, and other negative emotions can be a catalyst for creativity.
People deal with emotions differently and in their own ways, and as creatives, making something beautiful something out of it will most likely be your go-to. Then do that. Feel it in its fullness and give yourself the opportunity to process it. Then, at one point, you will have to release it.
Pain as a teacher, not as a friend.
1. You must let the pain visit.Ijeoma Umebinyuo
2. You must allow it teach you
3. You must not allow it overstay.
(Three routes to healing)
The common trouble for people is that they get stuck in the previous step— feeling their emotions. Admittedly, there is a certain level of comfort to be felt in constantly wallowing in your own unhappiness. It attaches itself to you somehow, making you think that it is already a part of you just because you have used it to create before. Even more, it will make the idea of getting rid of it something scary, as something that you will begin to think will damage you or make you any less.
On an episode of Tim Ferriss’ podcast entitled “Creativity, Pain, and Art,” Amanda Palmer was a guest and the podcast delved deeply into this topic. According to Amanda, the trick here is that we need to be able to use our pain, but still keep our distance enough to know when it has served its purpose. Grief is something you can only learn from when you step back from it and look at the big picture. It is only from there where you can appreciate what you can take from it, and to understand what it is trying to teach you.
The answer to why it happened and what you can learn from it probably won’t come to you when the pain is fresh and all you want to do is cry about it or be angry. At that point, we’re probably in no mood to make a postmortem report. That’s why it was necessary to feel it first. When the emotions have died down, you’re at a better state to move forward and fully process them.
Finding your everyday muses.
It has been said that the best way to unlearn a habit is to replace it with a new one. In the same way, resisting the urge to constantly use your pain for the sake of creativity can be made easier by finding other things to take inspiration from. When you open up your mind to create from other ideas, you lessen your dependency on your pain and slowly begin to let it go.
In as much as there is much art to be made about a relationship that ended or unrequited love, there is just as much you can create about your friends, your constants. Just as there are lessons from when you’re at your lowest, so are there things to learn from a brighter day.
Our addiction to the myth of the tortured artist has taken the lives of many, as it continues to haunt the minds of writers, comedians, actors, artists, and others in the creative field today. It’s time we abandon myths like this in order to pave the way for a better way of living for the ones in the artistic community. We should no longer be glorifying suffering creatives and depressed artists, but rather we should guide them, be with them, understand them, and allow them to see that being tortured and being an artist are not mutually exclusive.