The phrase “tortured artist” brings to mind several famous figures: Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Kurt Cobain, Vincent Van Gogh, and many others. While the phrase is often used in a somewhat disparaging sense, implying a sort of purposeful cultivation of a negative attitude, in reality these individuals suffered through tragic and often unavoidable circumstances, whether severe health issues, mental illness, alcoholism, sexual and/or physical abuse, drug addiction, poverty, the death of loved ones, failed relationships, or some combination of these. I do not know enough about their lives to discuss whether these artists were geniuses because they were tortured, or in spite of it, but it cannot be denied that they overcame tremendous challenges to produce masterful art. So, the question is: how did they do it?
I should say at the outset that I thankfully do not live a tortured existence and nor do I want to. I can’t claim to understand most of the things these artists went through. But, like everyone, I’ve experienced some of the tragedy and heartbreak life inevitably brings. And, while moments of extreme pain can’t be avoided, they can lend themselves to writing–authentically, deeply, and well–if you let them (and not just in fiction, but also in journal entries, essays, or whatever you happen to be working on at the time).
Of course, I’m not talking about that first phase of intense grief; that time when you are shattered; when a black hole spins at your core, threatening to suck the whole of you in, or when a crushing weight presses constantly on your lungs; when you can’t sleep, eat, or smile; when you keep remembering, and remembering again, that your life won’t ever be the same. There is no energy in those times for anything but surviving, coping; coming to terms.
But when that searing phase gives way to a gentler sadness, that is the time for writing.
I think it’s a focus thing. When grieving, the world narrows to a tunnel where only one thing matters—the event and its ramifications. If one is able to shift this tight focus over to writing, take advantage of this singular frame of mind for even a little while, there are rewards. You can shut out chatter in a way not possible when your thoughts are scattered. Sink into and take comfort from words on a page–black and white in way that life is not. Gain respite, through escape or catharsis. Draw from a deep well of raw emotion. Go there, wherever there is for a particular story.
Grief is a time when we are reminded that our daily existence is often lived at surface; a shallow place of routine, distractions, petty amusements, and squabbles. While this is probably healthy for real-life contentment, it is not necessarily a helpful perspective from which to write. Good writing plunges in. Grief, through open wounds, allows access to our deepest places.
Maybe tortured artists are brilliant because they live in that abyss all the time, their wounds kept open by IV lines leading directly into the flowing pulse of their emotion. But this is taxing, as is evidenced by the tragic fates of many of these individuals.
For me, there is also a flip side to the premise that pain can lead to powerful writing. Writing can also cause pain. It can raise long-buried emotions or stir up new ones. Take you from a place of contentment and satisfaction to an uncomfortable, unsettled place where you feel things you don’t necessarily want to feel. This has been my struggle of late. My instinct is to flee, because that would be easier. Brave writers face this and endure; I’m not sure I’m brave.
Of course there are all kinds of caveats to what I’ve said above. Not all writing from a place of pain will be great (much won’t), nor do readers necessarily want to read graphic, thinly veiled accounts of personal tragedy, if that’s what you’re writing (though they might). And there is also the difficult issue of depression, a drawn out form a pain which saps energy, motivation, and sometimes even the will to get out of bed. Having not experienced this myself, I’m not about to suggest that depression is conducive to productivity or strong writing. And, of course, it is not healthy to seek pain or stay in a sad place solely for the purposes of one’s art (or any purpose). There are probably more happy artists than truly tortured ones, even among the greats, so pain isn’t necessary.
I’m talking about that fleeting space between the first blow of an emotional trauma and its ultimate resolution, or the uncomfortable feelings unearthed when dredging internal mines for inspiration, and how these might be used. It seems to me that whether writing from a place of grief or raising emotion by striving to write deeply, you touch on that authentic place vital to the very best writing.
This is what I take from those tortured souls who lived such tragic lives: there is power in pain, if one isn’t afraid to use it.
Let me leave you with a musical example. I don’t know the exact story or inspiration behind Pearl Jam’s song “Release” but it has to do with lead singer Eddie Vedder’s father or stepfather (as do many songs on Ten–Eddie found out as a teen that the man he’d thought was his father was, in fact, his stepfather, and that his biological father was dead). Clearly written and sung from a place of deep pain, it resonates strongly with me even though it does not mirror my own experience. And isn’t that what we aim for in our own writing?
“I’ll ride the wave where it takes me / I’ll hold the pain / release me.”
I’d love to hear your thoughts.