Dispelling the Cliché of the Tortured Artist

We've all heard it before in some form or another.  Whether it's the crazed writer in a movie, or the insane and tortured artist, it is a strange (and sometimes pervading) idea and cliché that to be a great artist, you have to be insane, or crazy, or tortured.  And as much as I'd like to think that these kinds of ideas are viewed as antiquated in 2018, they are very much alive (along with plenty of other antiquated and silly notions, ideas, paradigms, etc).

I'm talking about the writers you'll find on the internet--whether it's in their blogs and video-blogs, their biographies, or their attitudes--who say, as if it's cute, that they're writers so they're a little insane, or they're artists so they're crazy.  And sometimes it isn't such an openly expressed thing; sometimes it's in the way people talk about writers and other artists.  I'm not saying that artists can't be depressed, or troubled, or anything of that sort, because if I recall correctly, sometimes a person with mental illness is driven to create art as an outlet or as a way of bringing purpose and definition into their lives.  And mental illnesses make no distinctions.  I'm not saying at all that artists aren't more or less tortured or prone to mental illness than any other "group."  To do so would be ignorant and likely further many stigmas.  But among many artists, writers especially (in my experience), it's somehow become "cute," almost, to say something to the tune of "I'm a writer, I'm crazy," or to include "insanity" in a top 10 list of traits writers or other artists have.

And while for the most part this is done without any ill intentions, I think it's a dangerous myth that needs to be done away with.

When I was younger--around early to mid high-school, possibly earlier--this "crazy writer" idea was one I found irrationally appealing.  It was something I would write about, ironically (though not ironically at the time), and even allowed it to slip into how I viewed myself.  This is embarrassing to admit, but it's also necessary.  I was a troubled individual through much of my adolescence, partly because adolescence in general is a chaotic and intense time in life, probably among the hardest things we will ever experience as our brains develop and try to keep up with the development of our emotions, so there's a fundamental disconnect there.  And there are a lot of things about myself I look back on that I cringe at now, but am glad that I cringe, because it means I've grown so much--and when I look back, I see an angst-ridden, overly self-serious adolescent who saw the world as one big machine within which I was a helpless cog.  Being in high-school didn't help, of course, considering the state of public education, but that's another subject.

Through the darker times of my adolescence, between heartbreak, depression, anxiety that I didn't know was anxiety, impostor syndrome, and so on, I was developing as a writer.  Some of that development I wouldn't trade for anything.  Other aspects of that development--the parts that stemmed from believing that to be a great writer you probably had to be a little crazy--would have stunted me, creatively and emotionally, had I allowed them to take hold and define me as I approached and then settled into adulthood.

But as an adult now, I know what it's like to suffer and I know what it means.  I know how it is to be crippled by anxiety to the point that social interaction is extremely difficult, and opening up to someone--even to oneself--has to be done with a metaphorical crowbar.  I know what it's like to descend into nihilism, to look at the world and see it through tired eyes and to be unable to summon enough will and enough stillness and mindfulness to overcome a sense of pervasive meaninglessness.  These are things I have experienced and sometimes still struggle with, and I can tell you I made no truly great art during those times.

I have been writing since I was ten years old.  Even before then I was a natural storyteller, but it wasn't until age ten that I started to write.  It took years of development before I was writing stories worth reading, but one thing I've never struggled with is the will to write.  I write every day now, and have always tried to write every day.  Nowadays it's natural.  This means I can look back at the things I was writing during the darker parts of my adolescence, and when I do, it's clear that I was nowhere near as productive as I am now, and nothing I wrote is something I would call particularly good.

The point I'm trying to make here is simply this: To perpetuate the idea that to be an artist you need somehow to be tortured, can be dangerous to artists.  I worry that young aspiring artists who don't know any better might do what I did, might accept the myth of the tortured artist, and these young artists--filmmakers, writers, poets, painters--might decide not to seek help for their mental illnesses or torments because they might learn to view those things as part of their creative identity.  In my youth, I could have devoted my energy to deeper, more cohesive and productive introspection; I instead embraced the tortured artist idea and tried to run with it.

But things are different now, which is why I'm writing this post.  Nowadays I'm attentive to myself, to my mental and physical and emotional state.  I meditate almost every day.  I face my anxiety.  I don't take myself, or even this life, so damn seriously, and therefore I find more joy, more peace, more wonder in every aspect of life.  Sometimes I even find myself in genuine awe of the mere fact of existence while just sitting somewhere, and it doesn't even have to be somewhere beautiful.  Sometimes I will sit in my room and marvel at how strange it is that anything exists.  Even just writing this I'm overcome with that feeling, and find a smile on my lips.

I know I am not my mind.  I know myself better than I ever have, and although I am an existentialist by nature, existential angst, as it is called, is now only a rare and passing thing rather than a reality for me.

I have two books published--Other Endings and Fairlane Road--and am learning to overcome my impostor syndrome (which I will discuss in a later post) and give myself credit for my accomplishments, talents, and successes, and face my failures and mistakes without judgment.  The same goes with how I see the world and others.  Last year I wrote another novel.  This year I finished writing the sequel to Fairlane Road, which means I'm sitting on two completed unpublished works, and am around fifty pages into my next one, and just saying all of this (and pretending to say it confidently) is surreal to me.

Where once I fleetingly identified with the idea of being a tortured artist, I find myself happier and more at peace in my life and in myself than I ever have, and I am more productive in my writing than I have ever been.

Stephen King once said that writing may not be life, but it is a way back to life.  And I think this applies to any art.  If you identity with your suffering, if you believe you are your mind, and most of all if you merge your suffering with your creativity, you may create interesting art, yes, but what kind of life are you living?  How is it worth it if it must come from suffering?  Art shouldn't only be created, it should be enjoyed, it should be celebrated, it should enrich, it should enlighten, it should give us pause, it should bring us closer to life.  I think you should fall in love with your own art, be interested in it the same way you are interested in the art of others.  Art can save us, and it can be a refuge, and it can be an outlet, but it doesn't have to be those things.

As with anything--as with living life itself--art can be as simple as entertainment.  Something you do because you love it.  Because it's fun.  Because it's entertaining to you and to those who experience it.  And if you're like me and you're going to create art no matter what--if it's something you have to do in the same way you have to breathe--this can be empowering rather than tormenting.  I have to write, but I don't have to suffer.  Some writers, or artists in general, come to view their compulsive need to create art as a form of torture in itself, but I wonder why some believe it has to be this way.  At any moment we have the choice to accept what is, or to resist what is.  If I have to write, why shouldn't I learn to love it?  And we are alive, we are in this world and we're going to be here anyway--why shouldn't we learn to love ourselves, and to love our lives while we're here?  Why choose suffering over that?  Life contains a lot of suffering anyway; we don't have to make ourselves suffer even more.

And especially, as David Lynch once said, we don't have to suffer to create art.