Is Suffering The Secret Ingredient to Great Art?

“No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modeled, built, or invented except literally to get out of hell.”

Antonin Artaud

A few years ago I stopped writing fiction. As a matter of fact, I stopped writing much of anything. A few posts here and there, mostly as short as possible, inspired by a nice quote or by some thought.

I couldn’t focus on anything for longer than half an hour.

I was earning enough to cover living expenses, to indulge once in a while…

There seemed to be no reason to write. What I wanted to write about, certain events in my life, hurt too much to even think about for a longer period of time, so I just… settled.

I still got ideas. Those never seem to give up. Pesky little things. Most times I just ignored them. I had other, much louder demons to worry about.

About two and a half years ago I started writing again. Why?

For a long time the answer eluded me.

But, first, you must understand that for a very long time I thought I was only writing to escape hell. My definition of hell being a world where I thought to survive, no reason to plan ahead for more than the next two or so days. I thought I was stupid and ugly and that no one liked me.

Some days I was forced to eat anything that cost less than a dollar. Other days, I’d cry myself to sleep for feeling lonely beyond belief.

So I wrote. It was the only thing I could do.

And thus I began to think of writing not so much as a means to save my soul, but the side-effect of my soul being damaged beyond repair.

The thing you do when you realize you’re going to hell anyway.

Is suffering necessary in order to create art?

Short answer: no.

Long answer: well… it depends…

The myth of the “troubled artist” or “starving artist” or “mentally unstable genius” is a dangerous one. Each and every single one of us can come up with a lot of famous names of people who lost almost everything but their will to create as much art as possible.

Van Gogh cut his own ear off in a fit of tortured insanity. Sylvia Plath lost her life after a battle with depression.

A lot of my artists friends only draw or paint or write when their world is falling apart.

The funny thing, and this is what I believe now, it’s that even though there’s a clear correlation between suffering and the creative genius, I also think that correlation does not mean causality.

And which is the cause? Art or suffering? Which triggers which?

You could easily argue that one becomes so obsessed with creating art that one often neglects other aspects of life, such as taking care of loved ones, keeping human by interacting with others, taking care of one’s finances, healthcare, mental health, and so on and so forth.

If you’ve ever entered into what’s commonly known as a flow state when creating art, you know it’s almost impossible to break out of. Days become hours. I have spent up to 72 hours without sleeping much, without feeling hungry or thirsty. As if in a trance.

Maybe we are the prisoners of our art. Maybe this cage that allows us to break free from the world is what’s ruining our lives.

Or maybe not.

It’s also plausible that we’ve been lied to. That this myth spread like a virus, infecting creative minds to the point of believing that suffering is inevitable if you are an artist, that it is impossible to try to maintain some sort of balance between your art and personal life.

Maybe it’s this notion that hypnotizes us into self-sabotage. To stay around toxic people. To resort to different drugs and addictions. To become self-destructive in the hopes of creating a masterpiece.

You begin to welcome tragedy, even desire it. Tragedy is what is needed for your art. You begin to seek out opportunities for suffering. It’s what must be done.

If this sounds a bit on the crazy side, it’s mostly because we like to see ourselves as these rational, sophisticated beings, far superior to everything else around us.

We’re not.

We’re terribly irrational at understanding what actions trigger what kind of response, and it is plausible that one can believe suffering to be the secret ingredient to creating art and seek it out for this purpose.

At the same time, I am well aware of the fact that there are a lot of artists who live impeccable lives. They are well-adjusted, have a great social life, take great care of their overall health. No addictions. No depression.

When I started writing again, two and half years ago, I realized that I had missed it. That was all. Writing is my passion. I have invested too much time and energy into it. I also love words, love reading, love to express myself by typing some words onto a computer or on a smartphone.

Maybe we do not create art because we want to escape hell. Maybe we create art because hell is what our lives would be like if we wouldn’t.

27 thoughts on “Is Suffering The Secret Ingredient to Great Art?

  1. I somehow believe in this because sometimes, it is when we’re suffering that we feel the deepest emotions. The same applies with me for I really find it harder to write when I’m happy than when I’m sad.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Maybe it’s because happiness is usually light. Could even call it superficial. It’s always the little things that make us happy. Laughing with friends, enjoying a great book.
      Suffering, on the other hand, requires a lot of introspection, a lot of thinking. It’s an exhausting process, not just a state of mind.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. This is a great post and totally relatable. Sometimes writing, or expressing yourself through other means is so therapeutic when you’re in despair. But I also believe that you can be happy and just use your past experiences to create art, even when you’re not suffering anymore 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. True! Though I would make a difference between the artist, the one born to manifest the art which, unless expressed somehow, in any form, can burn his/hers insides, and the manufacturers or craftsmen trying to make art. Artists are not regular or “normal” people therefore they should not be judged by the norms. This is the greatest mistake society makes since… ever. And the deepest tragedy of an artist which is indeed willing to be ‘part of’ the world, too when… he is not. He is just in the world, but not of the world. Thus alienation and incredibly and impossible to understand deep suffering gets installed.Maybe for his entire life. “Normals” cannot and will never understand it. They are simply not equipped with the needed tools, they don’t posses the Artist’s eyes and not due to evil intentions or great ignorance.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. All very good points. There have been times in my life when I found it hard to write, and I’m the type of poet who just picks of a piece of paper, it seems, and suddenly a poem is there. I also work in the craft of writing and publishing. So I should never have issues like yours, right? Wrong! We write when we feel, and when I can’t write it’s because I’m not allowing myself to feel. Once it was a bad marriage, a stressful job with lots of travel, a denial of what I knew but could not accept. I don’t know what happens now. I think I’m feeling too much … so overwhelming, but I just became a widow on April 9, 2018. Yes, less than a week ago. Will I be prolific or will I be like a dry inkwell. We shall see…


  5. Personally I think what I do, is take the worst times of my life and transform them into something beautiful- A sad poem, a short story, words to make others feel not alone anymore. I do not suffer for my art or because of it, I just translate my suffering into something others can see and hopefully, feel with me.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. A thought provoking post…….I don’t think art would exist without our ability to experience both tragedy and joy — by both the artist and the art lover.

    But dear ( I can use this term because I am probably old enough to be your grandmother), if any part of your life is influenced by a toxic person, I encourage you to love yourself enough to remove yourself from that toxicity. You deserve to live a happy life, and I think your writing could only be enriched by good health, contentment, and self care. You are worth the effort.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I react. I am volatile. I don’t want to write unless I am happy. When I’m unhappy, I want to give up; when I’m angry then I want to destroy every thing. Writing something is the only escape I have outside of my head and heart.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. When I’m unhappy or deeply hurt it doesn’t actually feel like I’m being creative. It feels more like I’m releasing something that was already there. Which for me is addicting but I know I’m also being narcissistic because it reinforces the hope that there is something innately special about me. When I’m creative for work (where I HAVE to be creative) it’s less glamorous and more practical. The opposite of special if you will. So I try not to romanticize my suffering.

    Something I remind myself of is that “No matter how much I love my art, it can’t love me back”. It reminds to not lose sight of what matters to me the most at the end of the day.

    Thank you for this truly thought-provoking post. It actually reminded me how much I miss writing fiction.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. You ended this post quite beautifully. I love this paragraph from you—— “Maybe we do not create art because we want to escape hell. Maybe we create art because hell is what our lives would be like if we wouldn’t.”

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Excellent post. The penultimate paragraph spoke to me the most. I stopped writing for years, telling myself I was “too busy”. Looking back, I know I felt something was missing. My wife must have noticed too. So when she asked me recently why I didn’t write anymore, I didn’t have a good answer. Instead, I dusted off the old draft and started revision this week. It’s hard but I honestly feel this is my passion. I’d forgotten that for too long.

    Liked by 2 people

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