You don’t need to be miserable to be creative

The persona of the tortured artist is so commonplace that we don’t often think twice about its validity.

The first place I remember seeing pushback against it was by Hannah Gadsby, in this little clip from a larger work. 

More recently for me, it came up in Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, where she points out how destructive this mindset is: (some) people actively seek suffering when pursuing creativity while others refuse to try to improve or grow or heal in fear that they’ll no longer be able to create.

She goes on to say that she can’t create when she’s in those spaces of pain—and countless others, famous and not, can validate that experience from their own lives. 

This sentence in particular resonated loudly: “My suffering takes this whole thrilling and gigantic universe and shrinks it down to the size of my unhappy head.”

That’s why looking for ways to be helpful to others helps me a lot when I’m in those spaces. It widens my worldview a little and gets me to peek outside of my own head. As a potential side benefit, maybe it helps someone in a bad spot, or helps keep someone out of a bad spot. 

Anyone who has been in a deep depression probably doesn’t look forward to those times as massively creative. Basic functioning is extremely taxing, not leaving energy to create anything meaningful or beautiful or poignant. 

Chronic pain that causes self-medicating doesn’t yield good results. If nothing else, it’s a parasite that kills the creator.

She writes about creativity growing like weeds through sidewalk cracks, where they grow despite the struggles, not because of them. 

I’ve had this same vision of struggle for a long time, not with regards to creativity specifically, but about people thriving despite pain, and it looking like flowers in the sidewalk. 

Beautiful or intricate or delicate works have been created in expression of pain, and we go to those for comfort or validation. I’m in no way suggesting otherwise.

Friends, that pain is going to happen regardless. None of us gets through life unscathed (though some are more scathed than others, for sure). We needn’t seek it out or hold onto it as some sort of twisted creative elixir.

1 thought on “You don’t need to be miserable to be creative”

  1. I recall reading an interview with John Lee Hooker once. The interviewer commented that he must be really sad when he’s composing blues songs. Hooker replied that, no, he can only write when he’s happy. The music won’t come otherwise.


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