Drawing by Hugh MacLeod
The tortured artist is one of the great cliches of creativity. And like all cliches, it contains a grain of truth.
Look at the work of any truly great artist, and you will find suffering is one of the big themes – whether it’s the everyday misery of poverty (Dickens), the pain of unrequited love (Petrarch), the atrocity of war (Picasso), the inhumanity of bureaucracy (Kafka), the pathos of passing time (Hardy), despair in the face of death (Tolstoy), or sheer existential anguish (Plath, Munch).
Even apparently trivial forms of popular entertainment, like the cinema and pop music, have produced masterpieces of suffering, like Bowie‘s Low, Joy Division‘s Closer, or just about anything by Kenji Mizoguchi or Leonard Cohen.
Is this surprising?
Not if you think the Buddha had a point when he said suffering is an integral part of life – and if you agree with Hamlet that art should hold “the mirror up to nature”. So if you want to be a great artist, sooner or later, you’re going to have to deal with suffering.
There are two ways to do this: in your life and in your work.
Firstly, when you encounter suffering in your own life, don’t shy away from it. Look it in the eye. Even in the midst of a disappointment, a betrayal, an illness, a broken heart, or even a bereavement, there should be a part of you that observes and pays attention. That thinks “so this is what it is like” – and remembers.
Graham Greene said “there is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer” that forces him or her to look when others look away. To make notes. To record and tell the story.
Secondly, when you’re working and you come up against a creative block, ask yourself whether you are shying away from dealing with painful emotions or experience. If so, then the challenge is to stick with it – to stay with the pain, the suffering, the embarrassment, whatever it is – until you make a breakthrough.
Of course this risky and scary. And when you try to deal with a big theme like suffering, it’s so much harder to maintain high standards of artistry. You can be so overwhelmed by the subject matter that your craftsmanship suffers. There’s a dangers of becoming sentimental or ridiculous.
But great artists don’t become great artists by playing it safe.
And How Not to Do It
Everything I’ve written so far has been about what I would call genuine suffering – the kind of suffering that’s part of life itself, which no true artist can avoid.
But there is also another kind of suffering, that’s all too familiar to those of us of the artistic persuasion (and our friends and family).
This is the kind of self-pitying, self-dramatising, maudlin ‘suffering’ that gives artists a bad name.
It’s the kind of suffering that makes us tell ourselves there has never been a more sensitive, talented, unlucky and unjustly ignored creator than us.
It’s the kind of suffering that sends us to bed (or to the bar) for three days when we get a bad review, or when we are passed over for an award, or when we receive some other slight to our professional pride.
It’s the kind of suffering that makes us moan and whinge and bitch to our partner, best friend, family, blog readers and/or Twitter followers, until their patience is stretched to breaking point.
This kind of suffering should alert us to the fact our old friend the Inner Whining Artist is on the prowl again – and it’s time to tell him/her/it to leave us alone so we can get on with our work.
Let’s face it, we all indulge in this kind of suffering from time to time. Some days, it’s hard to separate the two types of suffering. But it’s essential that we keep trying.
If we’re serious about making real art, that is.
How about you?
Do you recognise the two types of suffering for your art?
How do you get yourself to face up to the first kind?
How do you stop yourself from indulging in the second kind?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 26-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder. And for bite-sized inspiration, add Mark on Google+.