For the last several months I’ve been meditating on a big idea. A vast, multi-faceted idea. An idea that can be approached from different sides and attacked from numerous angles. An idea that for me, as an artist and as a creative being, is on par with questions like ‘What is the meaning of life?’ ‘What’s my higher purpose?’ and ‘Why are we all here?’
I don’t think I can tackle the question weighing on my mind in one post. It’s too big. It will probably become a recurring theme in my work (echoes of it appear in my blog, Broken), or in a series of posts. I’m not sure yet.
But, to begin. What I’ve been puzzling over is this: in order to create great art, is suffering a necessary, and in fact, inevitable, part of the process?
Our history is rife with visionary creators who harbored broken souls. Tennessee Williams, Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath. More recently, Heath Ledger, Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The talented and tortured musicians who are members of that infamous 27 club: Jimi, Janis, Jim, Kurt, Amy.
There’s no doubt that among the gifted and the sensitive, there’s a proclivity toward addiction and self-destruction. But why? Don’t mistake me; I’m not suggesting that in order to be a great artist (or even a mediocre one), alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, even suicidal tendencies, are a prerequisite. If anything, this toxic and destructive behavior produces inertia that stands in the way of the creative process. But the idea that I keep coming back to is this: as artists, we suffer more than the rest of people. We feel things more exquisitely. In order to be visionary, we must be honest to the point that it’s painful. We must be willing to expose our most private, secret parts, our deepest vulnerabilities, and the darkest parts of our hearts. We must walk into the full range of human emotions open and unguarded. And for that, we pay a hefty price.
I have a uniquely personal experience with the idea that the act of creation produces suffering, and it’s the reason I’ve been meditating on it at such great length. Over the last year and a half, I’ve lost three of the most important people in my life in dramatic fashion. And I lost not only their physical presence, but also something much deeper and more profound. Through their deaths, I’ve been faced with hard truths about my family that I didn’t want to know. Truths that have shaken and shattered my foundation and left me questioning everything I thought I knew: my childhood, my relationships, my history, and my very identity.
But here’s the gift. When I finally, recently, landed at zero, I became more creative. My writing got better. Ideas started clicking, and synapses started firing in a way they never had before. I found myself suddenly harnessing an authority that I’d never owned before; an authority that I’m not only compelled to share with others, but an authority that I have to share in order to survive. I know this like I know the color of my eyes or the place that I was born.
All human beings suffer. It’s inevitable. We make terrible, tragic mistakes. We experience great pain. We love deeply and we lose profoundly. Most people don’t walk into these emotions willingly. They avoid them because they’re painful, and only experience them as the inevitable by-product of being alive. But as artists, we wade into the most intense human experiences willfully, and with abandon. We welcome the pain, the joy, the agony and the ecstasy. We say bring it on. We want to feel everything. But sometimes we feel too much. Enter booze, drugs, sex, crazy, destructive behavior, in order to numb the pain. And that’s when we get into trouble.
Speaking from personal experience, it’s incredibly difficult to put my heart on the line and my grief on display in such a vulnerable way without becoming a little fucked up and unhealthy about it in the process. The intense feelings I’ve been wading into and moving through have made me feel closer to Tennessee and to Sylvia and to Vincent and to Kurt. I understand them better. My gift and my curse is that the hole in my heart is only filled through sharing my very personal story with the world. And yet to sit in those feelings without letting them swallow me whole is the great challenge that I’m still trying to sort out. The powerful conundrum that we face as artists is that our very lives depend on telling our stories – honestly, openly, nakedly, no holds barred – and yet the act of doing so is so dangerous to our psyches that it threatens our survival. It is the ultimate Catch 22, the tightrope we must all walk.
And so, my fellow poets, beautiful dreamers, dear friends, brave and broken souls, I invite you to join me in meditation on this question: how do we do what we must do, what we were born and put on this earth to do, without allowing it to destroy us?
It’s an open dialogue, if you’d like to have it.
Until next time, friends.