Must You Suffer for Your Art?

Robin Williams
Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society

This past week, there’s been an abundance of news stories and reflections on the life of a comedic genius and extraordinary actor, Robin Williams. Despite his public persona as the funny man, he clearly suffered from deep depression and suicidal thoughts. There’s been plenty of debate about his life, the causes of his suicide, and what those suffering from depression should or can do.

I’m not getting into any of that.

But several articles also suggested a link between creativity and “insanity,” or perhaps better called “instability.” After all, Seneca the Younger (an ancient Roman philosopher) said: “There is no great genius without some touch of madness.”

We have a character archetype of the mad genius or the suffering artist — the person whose creative tendencies keep him from eating or sleeping or succeeding in relationships. We certainly have many examples of brilliant, yet self-destructive, artists — from Vincent Van Gogh to Ernest Hemingway to Janis Joplin to Heath Ledger. And we rightfully pay homage to their creative contributions.

But I want to speak up and squash the myth that you must be a mess inside to produce excellent work outside. The suffering artist type is often romanticized, and I think it’s bunk.

"The suffering artist type is often romanticized, and I think it's bunk."

Yes, our difficulties in life can make us more aware of senses and emotions and underlying truths. I do believe that some become artists because of the lives they have experienced and their subsequent desire to speak to the flawed human condition. But I don’t think it’s a necessary avenue that one must have massive hardship to create well, or that you must perpetuate suffering to continue your creativity. Indeed, the human experience itself is sufficient to produce all the material needed, since no one gets through this life without some challenges.

Sometimes I hear other writers talk fondly of sacrificing so much for their art. One keynote speaker at a conference I attended even recounted the failure of his first marriage as simply the cost of pursuing his creative path. How heartbreaking! Is it not possible to create excellent art and live a happy life at the same time?

Let me assure you that many others have done exactly that. (Personally, I’ve been heartened by the successful comeback of Robert Downey, Jr., who stopped torturing himself with drugs and has produced some of his best film work since.) It’s well worth the effort to be both excellent at creativity and at life.

Yes, Robin Williams’s work will be remembered and cherished for years, but what about the heartache he endured? The family he left behind? The memory of a life gone too soon? I choose to believe that Williams’s amazing talent would have flourished with a happier life as well. Because talent can be like that — it can thrive in bad times and good.

If you’ve bought into the myth of the tortured artist and you’re accepting life pain for the sake of creativity, for heaven’s sake, I’m begging you to stop. Trust that your talent goes deeper than that. Trust that you can have, and deserve to have, a happier life. Get help if you need it. Be a creative, yet happy, soul.

Other excellent articles I read on this topic: Why I Hate the Myth of the Suffering Artist; Scientifically-Backed Reasons Why Being Creative Can Make You Happier

As a happy person myself, let’s now see how creative I was this past week. Following is my weekly update on A Round of Words in 80 Days, the writing challenge that knows you have a life.

ROW80 Update

1. Finish editing Sharing Hunter, young adult contemporary novel. Seven more chapters completed. It’s going quite well, and I hope to be finished in a couple of weeks.

2. Edit, polish, and release two more short stories in my Paranormal Playground series. I’m aiming for September releases and will tackle this goal when #1 is finished.

3. Read 12 books. This week, I read Radiant (novella) and Boundless by Cynthia Hand, Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, and Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy by Ally Carter. Not counting the novella, I’ve read 6 books this round (halfway there).

4. Attend RWA Conference and Day of YA in San Antonio and follow-up as needed. I polished up my query, delivered it to a critiquer, and I’m waiting for feedback.

One bit of happy news! My novel, Sharing Hunter, finaled in the young adult category for the New Jersey Romance Writers of America Put Your Heart in a Book Contest. My thanks to those who put on these chapter contests, which offer valuable feedback and opportunities to hone one’s writing.

So what do you think of the “suffering artist” stereotype? Is there truth to it?Do you believe it’s necessary to suffer in order to produce great art?

And how was your week?

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16 thoughts on “Must You Suffer for Your Art?

  1. I agree completely! We do not have to suffer for our art. I am also a happy person and I think it helps my writing. I can’t imagine having the energy to get put of bed and write every day if I was unhappy. Just like I can’t imagine writing while drunk. There are a lot of myths about artists I just don’t buy into. Thank you for shedding some light on this. It’s important to talk about. 🙂

  2. I think the proportion of depressed artists is roughly the same as the proportion of depressed non-artists. Artists just have a harder time hiding it. Robin Williams had a lot of stuff working against him: he was bipolar (manic-depressive), he had just learned that he was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, he had abused alcohol and drugs earlier in his career, his TV show had been canceled, etc. In the end, though, the only person who knows why he killed himself is dead now. And may he rest in peace.

    On a happier front, congratulations on your story being named a finalist! You should be proud.

    1. That made me true about our likelihood of expressing ourselves more. Interesting take! And certainly, may Robin Williams rest in peace.

      Thanks for your encouraging words!

  3. I agree with you! There is a litle confimation bias at play as well with the whole suffering artist myth, We mostly just hear about the outliers, Van Gogh, Hemmingway etc., and rarely hear about the counter examples who are the majority of artists who disprove this myth.

    1. Yes, the extremes do tend to get a lot of airplay, so to speak. There are those who fit the type, but many who do not. I’m aiming to keep my creativity and my joy. Thanks, Can!

  4. I love, love, love your quote–IOW, I totally agree! We can experience the range of emotions needed to relate in our fiction without experiencing the physiological causes of depression, chemical dependency, and the like.

    I actually blogged on “Must we suffer for our art” myself a long time ago, only from a financial standpoint (the old “starving artist” stereotype). That too, is bunk.

    Congrats on the contest final, and good luck in the final round!

    1. That’s so true about the financial thing as well! I wonder if we also praise the extremes on that front: The multimillionaire bestseller and the (literally) starving artist both get a lot of kudos. Meanwhile, I’m content to make a nice living and write great stories.

      Thanks, Jennette!

  5. It seems those artists that are tortured are the ones we hear most about. Too bad though. We need to see that art of any kind (including writing) actually improves our lives. Congratulations on being named a finalist! Sounds like you have been very busy.

    1. Thanks, Bev! Yes, I agree that writing has made me happier overall. Sure, I’ve written stuff when I was in the throes of agony, but it’s usually very personal and angsty and not the sort of thing I’d suggest anyone read on their free weekend. I’d rather share the stuff I turn out when my life and writing are going pretty darn good.

      Happy writing to you!

  6. I think the suffering artist is not necessarily a myth – just that artists are people who feel everything much more deeply – and many don’t have the coping skills to deal with those emotions. It can even get to the point where they wonder what’s real, because goodness knows the western world is not exactly a nurturing place to be. 🙂

    It brings to mind Edna Millay’s poem: My candle burns at both ends, It will not last the night. But ah! my foes, and oh! my friends, it gives a lovely light!”

    Congratulations on being a finalist in the YA category! And all the very best with the finishing the last few chapters. You’re moving along well. 🙂

  7. You mean I don’t have to cut off an ear or commit suicide to be an artist? I absolutely agree with you, Julie. It’s a myth, and one fed by many artists who would garner sympathy for themselves by appearing as tortured souls.

  8. Myth or not is not the question really. I don’t think you can group everyone into one category. Life is hard and some don’t make it. Art helps…creativity fosters and nurtures. We need to share more and work on not feeling so alone. Love the above quoted poem too. I have seen great genius lost after a tortured life, but it wasn’t all that bleak. I create strings of words and paint a picture which I hope will convey something and touch others. I don’t like to go to either extreme. Life is beautiful and dark at the same time.

  9. While there are plenty of suffering artists in history (Sylvia Plath comes to mind), there are also plenty of artists who led lives of quiet creativity (Emily Dickenson comes to mind here). That’s not to say her life didn’t have moments of sadness, but she certainly wasn’t the suffering artist the way Van Gogh was. I don’t think we have to suffer to create art.

    I know I’m at my most creative when I’m happy and healthy. And the act of creating also brings me great joy. I think there’s a lot of happiness to be found in the artist’s life, whatever medium. And I’d hate for us to be so caught up in the suffering artist archetype that we miss out on the joy and fulfillment to be found on the creative road.

    Great post!

  10. Congratulations on the book final Julie! That’s fabulous! And so was your post. I think you are spot on my friend. Yes, we do put emotion on the page. But there is no reason that we must suffer from it. Although, if someone is an extra sensitive person, I would imagine that it can affect the writer emotionally. If it does, wouldn’t that cross over to the reader? Or perhaps the writer’s material is very dark, depressing. It could be a reflection of the writer’s internal emotions? Unless, like Robin Williams, that writer was good at masking it. This is an interesting subject and one that will be talked about for some time. 🙂

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