Friday, January 18, 2008

Tormented Genuis

These thoughts were inspired by a mighty fine post by Avery DeBow. The nature of creativity and the creative process seems much on my mind these days...

"Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward" - Job 5:7

Which is to say, we all have pain. Or, to quote Michael Stipe, "Everybody hurts." The pain's there. It's always there, for all of us, all the time. Big deal.

Whether or not pain is necessary to the creation of art is an interesting argument. Personally, I'm undecided. Pain may be the single most important ingredient in art, that little speck of dirt that irritates an oyster into pearly goodness. Or art may simply be the lens through which we focus the whole of the human experience, misery and pain caught up in the picture so often because there's simply so much of it...

The idea that an artist must be miserable to create genius is, I think, utterly specious. Pain in your past, sure, but pain in your present? Necessary? Not a chance.

Sure, some artists have created works of genius in states of abject misery. F. Scott Fitzgerald turned out some fabulous writing while slugging it out with Zelda and drinking himself to death. Some of Picasso's best work coincided with the worst moments of the sexual maelstrom of his life. For them, the work was the single firm place they had to stand when the tempest raged.

The work can save you in bad times. When the sparks truly begin to fly upward, you can give yourself to the work and get through. Truth.

But the muse comes easier if your present is stable and content. That smelly, snuffling critter likes to know when and where to find you, and that you'll be ready to follow where it leads, *if* it feels like coming around. Your best work happens when it doesn't have to haul you out of an opium den...

Henry Miller didn't even start to do his best work until his worst days were behind him. Same for Leonardo DaVinci (that whole sodomy trial thing...), Jack Kirby (a rough street kid who invented half of Marvel's superheroes), Chretien de Troyes (a retired soldier before he put his own fresh spin on the Grail cycle), Dean Koontz (whose homelife is a model of stability since his dad can no longer try to kill him), the list goes on...

Or look at James Lee Burke, Stephen King, Ed Gorman and all the rest whose best work happened after they got sober, got stable, got settled.

Worried your pain isn't enough? I used to. How do my piddling little problems stack up against those guys? I mean, I've never been to war, been on trial, I'm not addicted to anything and heaps of people have had *much* worse childhoods.

But then I think about Joyce Carol Oates. Her life is pleasant and orderly life, her childhood ordinary, but when she sits down in that lovely room with the big window and her pen, watch out!

Charles Schulz's single great trauma was that he once loved a girl who didn't love him back, an experience I think it's safe to say, not that uncommon. Hell, as many times as my heart's been broken, I want to accuse him of milking it.

But man, what he did with that one little heartbreak!

My point? Schulz worked through his stuff in a *gorgeous* studio in a *gorgeous* home, with a loving wife and kids around. And as his life got better and better, so did his work.

Whoever you are, whatever's behind you and whatever's coming, know this:

You have what you need. Just use it to create.


Charles Gramlich said...

I love the Oyster/pearl image of pain. That deserves some thought. And I agree with you largely. It's very hard to describe an emotion if you haven't had it, haven't plumbed it's depths, and pain creates powerful emotions.

I wonder what you think about musical groups as oppossed to writers, and especially about addictions. It seems to me that bands such as Motley Crue and Aerosmith and quite a few others did their best work while in the throes of their various abuses and addictions. Or could age have anything to do with it?

Shauna Roberts said...

I've always greatly admired Richard Pryor. No matter how horrible events in his life were (and some were self-inflicted, which is probably even harder to live with), he always found a way to come to terms with them and make them funny (at least until the MS, which seemed to be the straw that broke the camel's back).

As to whether he was creative because of the pain or in spite of it, I lean toward "in spite of it." He could make even ordinary things funny.

Lisa said...

Creativity is life's consolation prize for pain suffered.

JHS, Esq. said...

Hi Steve-

Congratulations! Your post from January 16, 2008 titled “Wells Filled and Otherwise” has been selected as our Post of the Day on “The Rising Blogger”. It is a site that awards posts, not blogs. We will email your winning badge to post in your sidebar and all our info, if you contact us with your email address. To encourage your readers to comment on your award, it helps if you make the first comment on our post about your blog, yourself. We ask winners to nominate a post favorite of a fellow blogger. Call it “paying it forward”. Neither is a requirement. You have won this award because we truly feel you deserve it. To reach “The Rising Blogger” site:

Have a great week!
Judd Corizan
The Rising Blogger

Lana Gramlich said...

Lovely post, Steve. Encouraging, no matter how you slice it.

Steve Malley said...

Charles, music is the most mathmatical of the arts, and I think it's no coincidence that like mathmeticians, musicians tend to do their best original work before thirty.

Sadly, that may also account for the emotional adolescence of most modern music as well...

Shauna, my favorite Pryor monologue came after an exploding 'base pipe forced him sober: "When you are on fire, people get out of your way!"

He had a powerful, powerful gift.

Lisa, I'm often tempted to think so, like my troubles were the price I paid for my voice. The things hard times have taught me about the human condition have certainly deepened my art and made me all the more grateful for my current happiness, but every week in the tattoo shop I meet a virtual parade of human misery, so many of them woefuly uncreative...

Judd, thanks!

Lana, I meant to be encouraging, no matter how we slice it. I deeply believe that each of us is here for a reason, that each of us has the voice we're meant to have, and the experiences to inform that voice.

Whatever your background, you have the exact tools you need...

AvDB said...

Excellent response, Steve. And, you're totally right. The pain may give an artist a kick in the pants (and maybe, Charles, the drugs serve as a substitute for the torment), but, in the long run, there has to be something else, or he'll either run out of fuel or run mad. Since I'm not in favor of either option (I can't imagine not writing and I drool enough already as it is), I'm going to stick with my safe little housefrau existence and find the darkness elsewhere.

Anybody have any darkness they want to unload for cheap?

cs harris said...

Another wonderful post.

I think perhaps as long as a writer can empathize with the sufferings of others, one has the capacity to touch was is universal in such experiences.

A painful past tends to make empathizing easier, but it's not necessary.

SzélsőFa said...

A very interseting and encouraging post, Steve.
My experience wtih pain is that some of my poems were pain-induced, and I got extremely stable and calm AFTER having written them.
Once I got calm and relaxed - I wouldn't have been able to write the very same poem, though.

Shauna Roberts said...

Steve, as I wrote my comment, I was thinking of that very monologue! Who else could making setting yourself on fire and running down the street in search of help funny?