When I’m on deadline, I have a tendency to work myself into the ground. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that my process is naturally slow. From that two-year percolation period before I ever write a word to the half hour I will spend writing and rewriting and rewriting a single paragraph because it needs to have the exact right rhythm, it just… takes… time. So when I have a deadline to meet, I am almost constantly worried that I won’t get my manuscript done in time (I often lose sleep over it, which is the opposite of helpful). Do you know that high-pitched ringing, that eeeeeeee, that you sometimes hear when there’s some kind of electronic malfunction going on somewhere? Well, that’s my brain on deadline.
Anyway, this is on top of the fact that I’m also kind of obsessed with work. I was that kid who got straight As in high school (and one B+ in college that haunts me to this day). I love discipline and determination and chipping away at something day after day until it’s done. It makes me feel accomplished and fulfilled, and when I’ve got a task to do at a job I love, I can’t seem to stop myself.
All of this to say that when I’m on deadline, I’m stressed out and I work all the time and even though writing occupies this space in my soul that cannot be filled by anything else, I am pretty miserable most of the time. Which brings me, finally, to the topic of this week’s Work and Process: art and suffering.
Art is difficult. It’s hard trying to make something new or true or that contributes something to the world. It’s hard holding an entire world in your heart. It’s hard taking some of yourself and packing it into three hundred pages or a sculpture or a song and sending it out the door for strangers to review and critique and judge. It’s hard putting a dollar amount on something that, to you, is invaluable, because it comes out of years of experience and thought and joy and maybe pain. Art is hard.
(But I think it would be a mistake to say it’s harder than other work. There are all sorts of demands on people in other professions, and the demands of being an artist aren’t by their nature more important or more intense or more anything than the demands of any other job. I’m just not super interested in romanticizing or elevating the role and the pains of the artist over the roles and pains of other careers.)
Still. It is hard. Maybe because there’s no objective rubric for success as an artist? You could make a lot of money, but that doesn’t necessarily make you a good artist. Conversely, you could be making something really and truly beautiful or transcendent or paradigm-shifting, and you might not be able to keep the lights on because no one’s buying your work. Maybe we talk about how hard we work or how much our art costs us because we equate hard work and pain with value. If it takes so long or so much to do something, then it must be worthwhile, right? Maybe we cling to and display our suffering because if we hurt so much, then it must be for a good reason.
I was watching the second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, an award-winning original series on Amazon, a couple months ago. I have criticisms of the show, but in general, I do find the banter captivating and the acting compelling and the costume design totally enthralling. But there was this one storyline in Season 2 that made me want to throw a chair. It plays out in a number of ways, but here’s a telling example of how it shows up:
In Episode 7, the titular character, Mrs. Maisel, charms her way into the studio of a very fancy, often inebriated, notably secretive artist, Declan Howell, who is rumored to have painted something so beautiful, he never shows it to anyone. Quite taken with Mrs. Maisel, however, he invites her behind a hidden door where, voila!, this most beautiful piece of art is displayed. He calls it “perfect” and “the greatest thing I’ve ever made in my lifetime.” We, the audience, never get to see the art, which I think is a great choice, actually, but we are treated to this story about both the art and the artist:
DH: This was going to hang in my home. When I had a home. And a family. I had that life. This was… this was going to go there. But that was then. And this is now. I will never have that life.
MM: Now wait…
DH: I’m not trying to spin a melodrama. I’m being very realistic. The chance for that life is gone.
MM: That’s ridiculous.
DH: It’ll never happen because everything I have, I put into that [painting]. Nothing left.
MM: I think that’s very sad.
DH: Well, that’s the way it is. If you… if you want to do something great, if you want to take something as far as it’ll go, you… you can’t have everything. You lose family. A sense of home. But then… look at what exists.
In other words, he sacrificed everything to create this exquisite, magnificently beautiful piece of art. No family. No home. No friends (I’m assuming). No joy. That, he is saying, is the tradeoff. That is the cost of art. THe chance at a well-rounded, fulfilling life.
Later in the season, there are a couple other events that present this choice between art and happiness, and they all say the same thing: You can be great, but you have to do it alone. You can make great art, but you cannot live a satisfying life while doing it. To make great art, the show seems to say, you have to suffer.
Where did this idea come from? This trope of the tortured artist? This cultural narrative we tell over and over again, that art must come at the expense of joy? That genius is the work of pain? Was it Hemingway and his drinking habits? Plath, who died by suicide? Was it Van Gogh (Even though I’ve read that he wouldn’t work when he was ill? Couldn’t produce the works of art we so admire and revere?), who famously cut off his own ear? Why, for something to be good or worthwhile, does someone have to be in pain?
I find myself buying into this narrative, this myth, too, to varying extents. Look at how hard I work! Look at how much sleep I lose! Look at how miserable I am! That means I’m doing something important! But as much as I want to be acknowledged (by myself, I think, as much as others) for my hard work, this equation of suffering → art is one that I want to resist.
Suffering can be a part of art, sure. I think there’s too much suffering in life (and human history) for it not to be. Huge parts of The Reader Trilogy are concerned with loss, pain, trauma, grief, and I think these aspects of suffering are integral to the project. But suffering should not be the price we pay for our creativity. Something beautiful or valuable or genius should not have to come at the cost of our happiness, health, and general well-being. Art should not always have to be borne of pain or misery.
Rather, I would like to lean in to the idea that art can come out of balance, safety, security. Virginia Woolf (who, like Plath and many others, also died by suicide) wrote that in order to make art, a woman requires five hundred pounds and a room of her own, or, the space to create and the ability to pay the bills for that space. She doesn’t require agony. She requires security and a place to work without being interrupted.
Similarly, I’ve found that I do my best work, I am at my most productive and my most creative, not when I can’t sleep or when I’m sad, or isolated, or anxious, or unwell, but when I’m functioning, and my basic needs are taken care of, and I have healthy relationships with myself and with other people. I don’t think my creative muse actually wants me hurting or incapacitated. She wants me to show up every day with a clear mind and a healthy body, ready to work.
Hardship may be unavoidable--we do live in the world, after all, with other people--and I think it can or perhaps even should, to some degree, influence what we create, but I don’t want to believe that it has to be part of the creative process. I don’t want to believe that suffering is this cost, this toll, this price, that artists must pay in order to make something great. I want to stop glorifying the trope of the tortured artist, because I don’t want our artists and our geniuses and our creative people to have to be in pain for us to reap the rewards of their creativity. I want to continue working on changing the way I think about myself and my work and my process, so that I can have a healthier relationship to my art and develop more sustainable practices, because this is something I love, and I want to keep doing it for as long as I can.
Next week: 10 THINGS. I very rarely get completely stuck on a scene, chapter, or project, and that’s probably for a number of reasons, including my stupid ambition or my belief in revision, but it’s also because a few years ago I stumbled upon this one trick that helps me get through most of my everyday quandaries. Lemme tell you about it next Sunday at tracichee.com and/or post your own responses with the hashtag #workandprocess. Stay gold. <3
Work and Process is a year-long journey of exploring and reflecting on the artistic process, craft, and working in a creative field. Each Sunday, I’ll post some thoughts, wonderings, explanations, and explorations on writing and creativity, and by the end of it, I hope to have 52 musings, examinations, meanderings, discoveries, bits of joy or inquisitiveness or knowledge to share. In each post, I’ll also include a topic for the following week, so if you happen to be inspired to question/wonder at/consider your own work and process, you’re welcome to join me. We’ll be using the #workandprocess hashtag across all social media platforms, and I hope we find each other to learn and connect and transform on our creative wanderings.