Yes, you DO have to suffer for your art

A friend of mine recently passed away. Losing her was extremely painful. So I wrote about it.

Because I’m a writer and that’s the process: life kicks you in the gut and then you write.

We’ll come back to that concept in a moment, but first let’s talk about Jack Kerouac’s seminal book On the Road. It featured the following oft-quoted passage:

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

Those “mad ones” were Kerouac’s people, his homies. He no doubt had his artist friends in mind when he wrote those words; people like Neal Cassidy, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsburg.

One day I realized suddenly who my people were while listening to the brilliant song “Thrash Unreal” from the punk band Born Against. The song is about a heroin addict, and one section goes like this:

When people see the track marks on her arms.

 She knows what they’re thinking,

 She keeps on working for that minimum.

 As if a high school education gave you any other options.

 They don’t know nothing about redemption,

 They don’t know nothing about recovery.

 Some people just aren’t,

 The type for marriage and family.

Those people who know nothing about redemption and recovery, the ones who judge the junkie when they see her track marks, they aren’t artists. They can’t possibly understand why she (or any of us) would choose something other than a traditional life of marriage, family, and the 9 to 5 job.

The people I love, the people I want to be around, the people who I see creating great art, are the ones who have fucked-up bad enough at some point in their lives that redemption is an actual lived experience for them.

You see, you don’t have redemption without first fucking-up real bad.

And it’s the same with recovery.

If you’ve never been an addict, if you’ve never had a disability, if you’re body has never betrayed you, then you won’t understand recovery.

It’s from pain and suffering that recovery and redemption are birthed.

It is where art comes from too.

While we’re on the topic of Born Against, let’s look at another one of their songs. “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” as the title suggests, is about the experiences of a transgendered person. It includes the following lyrics:

You want them to notice

The ragged ends of your summer dress

You want them to see you

Like they see every other girl

They just see a faggot

They hold their breath not to catch the sick

It’s a heartbreaking stanza, and it was clearly birthed in feelings of rejection, hatred, fear, and disappointment. It’s an incredibly moving song, the lyrics are beautiful, and every single one of them drips with pain.

Am I saying that, as an artist, you should seek out pain and suffering?

No!

Absolutely not.

Life is going to hand you all the pain and suffering you can handle. And then some more on top of that.

It would be idiotic to actively go looking for more pain.

It’s already coming your way. It’s unavoidable.

Life is pain.

And as REM put it, “Everybody hurt, sometimes.”

That’s why everybody can be an artist.

There is a funny line in the film Orange County. The teenage protagonist tells his father that he intends to become a writer, and his father responds, “A writer? What do you have to write about? You’re not oppressed. You’re not gay.”

What the father doesn’t understand is that you don’t have to be gay or oppressed to have something to write about. You just have to have suffered through something. You can be an artist so long as you are willing to face the pain, instead of run away from it.

Everybody suffers, but artists are willing to turn that suffering into something worthwhile.

When discussing the nature of epiphanies, Steven Pressfield observes in his book Turning Pro, “We usually think of breakthroughs as ecstatic moments that elevate us from a lower level to a higher level. And they do. But there’s a paradox. In the moment, an epiphany feels like hell.”

Redemption. Recovery. Epiphany. To experience any of these emotions means going through hell and coming out the other side.

You don’t have to go chasing after pain to be a writer. You just have to embrace it.

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