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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