Artists need to suffer. Without suffering, there can be no creativity. Without creativity, no art. The artist is a tortured soul who relieves that torture through their art, but their art creates more suffering, causing them to seek self-destructive behavior through other outlets. Manic depressive behavior, self mutilation, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse and poverty. Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Joplin, Hendrix, Hemingway and Orwell.
Or so the popular trope would have you believe. The artist who has popular acclaim, or makes money and doesn’t seem to have suffered is clearly a sell out. Whoring their talent for the acclaim or the money (which no true artist would do…)
I’ve never been convinced by that image. There may be a higher incidence of artists who do suffer mental illness, but I don’t know if that is linked to creativity. A lot of artists probably do suffer from poverty, but then so does an apprentice bricklayer, until he ‘masters’ his art.
But oddly enough there may be some truth in the need to ‘suffer’ for your art. For most people who aspire to create (whatever their motivations), finding time is one of the great difficulties. Life intrudes. Immediate priorities steal time from important priorities. Your children need to be feed. Your boss needs you to come to work, These may not be important to you, but they are immediate. Maslow has his hierarchy of needs after all, and self actualization ain’t the most important.
So why is suffering important for creativity?
Many people who want to create find reasons not to. Recently I’ve been confronted with this. Wanting to write, but having a full time job, being a parent, having six week old new born baby, three dogs, two horses..and so on. So I set myself a low target. Write 150 word a day.
Don’t care about the quality. Just establish the habit. 15 minutes that’s all. In that time I could probably punch out 200 word. Maybe 300.
But even with that low target I struggled to find the time. So I’d block out longer periods less regularly, and I would ‘catch up’ on the word count. Maybe even exceed the word count. Four days would go by. I should have written 600 words, so I would sit down and write 800 and pat myself on the back.
But that wasn’t understanding or respecting the original aim of 150 words a day. Those 150 words were intended to establish a habit, not achieve a word count. (It would take a long time to write a novel at 150 words a day, unless you are doing Haiku, in which case, that’s positively verbose!)
So I bit the bullet and set my alarm clock at 05:20 am. I forced myself out of bed. Bear in mind, there is a new born baby in our house. Four weeks old when I first attempted this. He sleeps pretty well. But still, he is a new born. He feeds at all hours. My beautiful wife looks after that. But still. Broken sleep.
And its winter here in central Victoria. On average about -2 c when I get up. My ‘studio’ is an unlined shed. We’ve started to make it into a nice office. It has a magnificent view on an old blue stone church. But at the moment it is a corrugated iron shed with a nice glass door. Its cold. There is ice on the windows of my studio. As I write this, I’m sitting witha beanie on, my breath is a white cloud, and my knuckles are aching. The faster I type, the more they ache.
So is this suffering creating art? Is this necessary for me to be creative…or even productive? Do I need to be up at 05:30 am in the freezing cold. No. I could be in bed asleep. Or I could be in the lounge room with the heater on. But I’ve learnt something very important from this experience.
The human mind sabotages itself.
We avoid hard work. Particularly when it requires thought. Remember when you were at school and an assignment was due? And you would sit down and sharpen your pencils. Rule some lines. Check the time. And still not do your homework?
I found this happening to me at other scheduled ‘writing’ times. A quick check of email. Read the newspaper (gotta find inspiration somewhere eh?), hmm, lets check the Internet to see if there is an app that will help me focus. Maybe I should do a virus scan…all of the distractions that appear more important than writing.
Except at 05:20 am when there is ice on the window. Then I found myself valuing my efforts. The first morning I tried writing, I caught myself reading the newspaper on-line. It was so cold I was shivering. The shed was dark (we don’t have proper power out here, so I use a small led torch) My breath clouding in front of me. My knuckles hurt every time I hit the keyboard.
And I was reading The Age online. I kicked myself. I actually said out loud ‘You didn’t get up this early in the morning to read the paper.’ I was actually shivering when I said that, it was so cold. I realised then that if I was going to get up at 5am to write, then I was kidding myself if I was going to waste that effort on distractions. Better off to not set the alarm. Better off to be in a warm bed, snuggled up to my wife, listening to my newborn son mutter to himself.
In order to treat your work seriously, in order to establish and set habits that will last, some sacrifices need to be made, just to force you to treat yourself and your endeavors seriously.
JK Rowling, a single mum, author of the Harry Potter series, could have put her kids to bed, poured herself a glass of pino gris and put her feet up. No one would have blamed her. Parenting is hard. T riply so for a single parent.
But she didn’t.
Would she have treated her own work so seriously if no effort or sacrifice went into it? Maybe not. I’m sure every word she wrote was filled with an understanding that she was sacrificing precious spare time to write that word.
Better make that word count. Better make every word count.
So here I am. Four weeks on. Still getting up at 05:20. The internet stays off. My breath is still clouding over, although its getting warmer each day. The sun is coming up a bit sooner each morning. I’m averaging 800 word each 45 minute writing session. Soon I will be able to look up and actually see break of day, hitting the old blue stone church back lit by the deep orange dawn.
My wife has said that I should get the shed lined and finished as a proper study, then I won’t need to be cold.
But maybe not yet. Maybe I need to demonstrate to my self that I have a commitment to this endeavor. Maybe I need to know I’ve established the habit properly. Until I’ve learnt to make every minute of writing count.
So do you need to suffer to be creative? No, but there are barriers to entry. Barriers that you have erected. You need to break down the barriers that you’ve created. You need to convince yourself to treat yourself and your creation seriously.
Maybe I need to feel that cold a bit longer to remind me that I should take this time, and my efforts, seriously.