Are you pretentiously averse to both happiness and fun? Do you smoke cigarettes, and experience bouts of sexual frustration and recurring heartbreak? Perhaps you’re an unpublished, under-recognized writer living beyond your means in general, overarching societal sin?
If you answered affirmatively to more than one of the above, chances are that you’re a classic, symptomatically tortured artist. An accursed poet — a poète maudit.
Growing up, we tortured artists derive our creative material from the emotional struggles of circumstance: the search for a job, for money, for friendship, for love — for a sense of belonging.
We gradually resolve that our chronic dissatisfaction must surely be born from that which we do not have — a notion which, funnily enough, allows us the convoluted comfort of understanding and some perception of control.
Subsequently, we tend to override all notions of stability with the responsibility of both experiencing and interpreting pain as a cathartic art form. We feel that we owe it to ourselves, and to the generation we’re so bravely speaking for. Our identity lies in our artistry, just as our pain does in our creations.
We view our own sexuality as a topic to be studied — our romantic relationships as immersive research for yet another self-depreciatingly humorous article or sassy blog post.
Let’s be honest: who are we to deny the world of such hard-hitting, insightful musings as ‘Another 20 Reasons Having Netflix Beats A Relationship In Your 20s’ or ‘A Beginner’s Guide To Finding And Losing Love On Grindr’? We subconsciously prioritize our work’s connection to an audience over any personal connections we may forge with individuals.
Herein lies the root of the problem — our apparent aversion to personal happiness. You see, when it comes to writing, happiness doesn’t demand expression. It’s a closed circuit, complete within itself.
There’s no great hurdle to overcome; no need for sympathy or character redemption. Compelling narratives require trauma — unreturned phone-calls, drunken nights alone, and the unmitigated heartache of lost love. We must write it, therefor we too must live it.
Our unlikely resilience stems from the honest belief that, professionally speaking, there’s nowhere else to go but up. We run off the fuel of potential, self-assurance and the addictive high of possibility. We convince ourselves that we’re simply living out the ‘Early Life’ chapters of our future Wikipedia pages. We’re sad, yes, but only because we’re meant to be. We understand all too well that in the arts, catharsis is currency — and our loneliness could one day be lucrative.
History itself assures us on the matter. If it weren’t for their depression, Sylvia Plath would’ve surely been uninspired to pen The Bell Jar; Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire; F.Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. Their lives may have been plagued by sadness, self-harm and substance abuse, but the resulting works were celebrated as greatness.
All we want is for our works to be celebrated as greatness.
As young creatives, our stakes in happiness lie not in our relationships, but in our respective endeavors; in our unique ability to observe, understand, and express all the love and pain around us. We collectively disassociate ourselves. Our sadness becomes the cocoon from which good art emerges — and we remain hidden within; working through the motions, as all our idols did before us. Our work, albeit unpaid, isolates us from the present — but we don’t mind, so long as our gaze lies determinedly on the future.
The troubling thing is, then we reach it.
As is too often, and not often enough the case, we do find a paying job. We begin scraping together just enough money to make rent. We build solid friendships and, against all likelihood, we fall in love.
Suddenly that once distant, fictitious notion of adulthood (and certain, subsequent happiness) becomes an all too abrupt reality. Yet somehow the dull ache of discontentment persists — and clinical diagnosis offers too flippant a label.
It would seem that our attainment of that once so desperately sought ironically becomes our undoing. We’ve fallen so quietly in love with the journey, grown so comfortably positioned in the defensive — so hooked on the very struggle which drives us to not only string words into sentences — but to do so well.
On the subject of sadness, while having ‘nothing’ may instigate it, having ‘everything’ perpetuates it.
The control once held in our written word begins to waver. The pride once taken in our creative perspective shifts slowly out of focus. Our stakes in happiness no longer lie in our respective endeavors, but in the presence of those we love and the steadiness of the employment we keep.
We watch on helplessly as the burning flame of ambition dims down to a dull flicker, forcing us to confront that age-old, existentialist question: What is it that we actually want?
Do we want art, as we know and love it — the kind which justifies discontentment and transcends reality? Or do we want love, as our art itself so craves — the kind which transcends our words, exposing them as contrived? Must we concede defeat and surrender to the perceived mundanity of 9-to-5 contentment? Or do we sabotage our relationships and comfortable lifestyle in favor of an edgy article submission or pitch angle?
Is it even possible to write powerfully from a place other than pain?
I suspect the answer might be a simple one. If we do, as we so claim, respect our art, surely we must too respect the personal journey which naturally inspires it. To deny ourselves the emotional growth which feeds creative progress would be to reverse the inherent process of creation. Life must continue to inspire art — not the other way around — and our sadness, while beautiful, is stunting.
We must start letting in new light, and allow it to create new shades and texture. We need to hold our experiences of pain at a safe distance — stop embodying our troubled heroes and begin sculpting our characters from the warmth of hindsight. In the fictitious worlds we write, we must no longer play the tortured Son, but the Father — creating life, not sacrificing our own.
We are not Dickinson, Hemingway, Plath, or Fitzgerald. We are here, now, to pave our own journeys and tell our own stories. So let’s change it up a bit; perpetuate the happy artist in place of the melancholic — the long, healthy life in place of the one cut tragically short.
I think it’s time that we collectively embrace the notion that, while heartbreak will forever make a harrowing read, the heart genuinely touched by joy — now, that’s something worth striving for.
That’s something to be celebrated as greatness.
And you never know, perhaps once we reach it — if we reach it, though I would like to posit when — our art will follow suit.