The myth of the suffering artist
Trauma doesn't make you a better writer
“Believing you have to be unhappy in order to be creative is like believing you have to be shot in the foot in order to be able to run.”
[Content warning for mentions of suicide.]
Ever heard of the 27 Club? The organization has no set meeting location, no mission statement; indeed, it doesn’t even truly exist. But it does have bylaws and dues: you must be extremely famous, spectacularly talented, and dead at 27 years of age. Luminaries of this group include Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Robert Johnson, and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
This notional club is only a grisly example, though, of a larger harmful idea that floats around the artistic world: the misguided romantic notion that the creation of True Art requires True Suffering.
It’s not that there aren’t plenty of examples of artists who’ve had horrific upbringings and/or traumatic lives, and have gone on to create some of the greatest masterpieces we know. We see this over and over again: deeply troubled people produce brilliant books, paintings, compositions, eventually die in some way involving mental illness or substance abuse, then become great martyrs to their own genius in the minds of their followers.
Some, like Octavia Butler, Mary Oliver, Tori Amos, and many others manage to work through the pain, transform it into great works, and live well into middle and even old age. And for this I am incredibly grateful: the voices of those traumatized artists are true originals, people whose stories have injected power and hope into my everyday life.
But there’s a place where this reality gets twisted in the popular imagination, and that is where the danger comes in. It is a problem, essentially, of causality: people seem to think not just that suffering can inspire great stories, which, to be fair, it can. But people come to believe that great works of art require that suffering; that, essentially, only those who have been deeply hurt can create the works that move us so deeply.
Why do I suggest that this idea is dangerous, and not simply wrong-headed?
There’s a voice that follows me around my life. It whispers to me during the day when I’m supposed to be writing, it sits on my head when I’m trying to fall asleep, and stands on my chest when I try to get up in the morning. It doesn’t seem to matter whether I feel like I “wasted” a day by not getting enough done, or whether I overcame my tendency to procrastinate and managed to make something cool. The voice still shows up to make sure I know: “You’re in your late forties, you haven’t done anything with your life, and nobody cares about anything you create. You are a failure.”
Rude, right? Damn, inner voices, maybe take it down a notch. But it’s all too common, for those of us who are traumatized. We walk around all the time with these self-defeating, brutal voices in our heads, internalized critics who try to protect us from the fear and shame and horror of rejection by keeping us from doing anything that might put our egos at risk. Rather than simply “do the thing”—write the chapter, practice the instrument, finish that essay (or this one)—we alternate between feeling awful about ourselves and finding numbing behaviors to help us feel less awful about ourselves.
I might be making it out to be worse than it is for dramatic effect. Or perhaps I spend most of my time downplaying it, because acknowledging it hurts too much. It’s hard to tell, really, since the nature of a dissociative habit born of trauma is to obscure pain. All these parts that feel so self-defeating are, in their twisted way, trying to protect us from long-ago hurts.
But the point is this: for every Sylvia Plath, for every Kurt Cobain, for every Theodore Roethke, there are probably ten - no, a hundred!—traumatized artists who can barely make themselves finish a paragraph, or a sketch, or a song. For every brilliant traumatized novelist, for every genius painter who rose from poverty and violence, for every musician whose story of sexual assult and abuse rings through their chords to the masses, there are a thousand trauma survivors who not only will never write a great book or make a painting of note or direct an award-winning film, but have been rendered incapable of even talking about what happened to them.
Because here is the truth: trauma doesn’t help anyone create anything. The vast majority of the time, what trauma does is arrest development, crush hopes and dreams, destroy self-confidence, and make it intensely difficult for a person to do anything but survive, if they even manage that. The miracle of the tortured artist is not that they’ve been able to transform their suffering into beauty, although that is the product that we crave and exalt. The miracle is that they are able to express themselves at all.
You know what a lot of traumatized people end up doing with their lives? Not much. Because the resources they required to thrive were not given to them, because they weren’t loved in a way that nurtured them, because they didn’t grow up with the idea that they were special, that their voices were wanted, that their existence was a gift to the world. The people who overcome that kind of damage to create works of great beauty and import? It happens in spite of what happened to them, not because of it.
The art that arises, phoenix-like, out of the hearts and minds and fingers and bodies of the wounded is sometimes the result of tenacity, enormous healing work, and self-made wells of resilience. And sometimes it’s the howl of someone who must express themselves about their pain or die. Still other times it’s the howl of someone who will express themselves about their pain and still die. What it isn’t is the result of some kind of brilliance that can only be brought about by enduring horrific experiences.
I say this idea is dangerous because it hurts everyone subject to it. The artists themselves, who frequently don’t survive or spiral out, believing that their only value is their continued performance of their pain. The consumers of that art, who can begin to believe that conflict and cruelty are the only interesting subjects, and who often reward their favorite artists’ flailings with adulation. The people closest to them, who are often harmed when the artist lashes out in a reenactment of their damage. The stunted artists who feel that their pain is not enough to make them great, or that their failure to produce brilliance means they are even more broken. Even the securely attached and well-loved artists, who worry that their lives are too uninteresting to make stories out of.
Human beings have been telling stories, singing songs, dancing, and painting on cave walls since time immemorial. Storytelling and self-expression are birthrights, huge parts of what make us human, and essential to our survival and relationships with one another. As such, you don’t have to be a survivor to make something great: you have to be curious, and persistent, and perceptive. Three things, incidentally, that trauma also tends to damage.
Perhaps it’s a marker of my own trauma history, my own self-doubt if not self-indulgence, that I cannot seem to find an ending for this that really wraps up and reinscribes the point I’m hoping to make.
But maybe it’s mostly this: telling our stories is how we heal. Please don’t imagine that if you’re not a brilliant artist, then your story doesn’t matter. If you are a brilliant artist, please don’t imagine that your story is only as important as it is brutal. If your story is so brutal and shameful that you’ve never been able to tell anyone…please don’t imagine that nobody cares. Imagine, if you can, that your story matters—and also, that you are so much more than what was done to you.