The Architect and I had an interesting discussion last night about the correlation between artistic inspiration and contentment–or rather, discontentment. We both noted when we’re happier, we’re less productive. When we feel domestically at ease, the creative urges aren’t so urgent, the drive to show the world our souls less demanding.
We’ve all heard the tales of the genius among us, the boozing, reclusive artists who always teetered on the edge of madness, spinning their masterful works while tap-dancing on suicide’s razor-thin edge. It is their work we grudgingly admire, our esteem tinged with notes of jealousy, tinted gray from pity at their usually disastrous ends. The question today is neither of their eminence in literature, nor their firm hold on the threads of desperation, but merely a question of whether or not their despondency gave fuel to their artistic fire. Did their singularity of purpose drive away all other earthly aims, making them intolerable companions, thus fueling their solitude? Or, did their wholehearted attachment to the pain of life, their complete submersion in every moment of despair, build the foundations of their brilliance? And, if the latter is the case, what would a struggling novice relinquish to attain that level of artistic supremacy?
For me, the answer is, not much. The Architect and I have had eleven good years, the most content of them being the most recent. While I crave even a fraction of the vision that drove our most celebrated authors to craft their respective masterpieces, I have no desire to let go the peace that has pervaded my life these past five years. Here, in my chilly, boxy old house I cook and clean. I grow herbs in the summer and fill rows of bird feeders in the winter. I make garish fifties-retro kitchen curtains and play with my cats. My life is simple and fairly uncomplicated at this point in my existence, and not at all conducive to crafting twisted tales.
In my younger days, when every event around me was a direct wound to my soul, when I was struggling to find both myself and anyone who’d date myself, I wrote much more morose material. Whether it carried the spark of genius–I doubt it. I suppose even then, my life held threads of joy, attachments both material and interpersonal that could pull me from whatever funk I at present wallowed in. These links to life obviously saved me from solitude and misery, but did they remove from me the chance for greatness? I’ll never know. For, despite my adolescent self’s best efforts, I managed to grow up fairly well adjusted.
Having a deficit of inner demons may not sound like it bodes well for one who writes of the dark, but the world is full of evil, torment and pain. It oozes from the pages of the paper every morning, glides from the pseudo-concerned voices of news anchors on a daily basis. It’s all there, ripe for the picking. I suppose in the end the dark doesn’t need to be my own, as long as I, in the end, own it.
What about you? What amount of happiness would you relinquish for a chance at pure genius?
February 13th, 2008 at 6:10 pm
RRN — Everyone has cycles in their life where the concept of peace seems a mythical delusion. The me of six years ago is certainly not the me of today. Back then, I would have laughed if someone had told me life would work out like this. But, that’s the fun of living; you never know what’ll be thrown at you.
February 12th, 2008 at 9:39 pm
Wow. I have had a alot of thoughts along these lines lately. There are times when I look at the things I write and laugh at myself. Cry me a river. I think that what ever might be inside…Should come out. Happiness is cool to write about I think. Everything is relative and perception is key. Every little thing is fuel…all the good and the bad. I think reading this …and the comments to follow are helping me to realize some things….and that is pretty cool. “”Here, in my chilly, boxy old house I cook and clean. I grow herbs in the summer and fill rows of bird feeders in the winter. I make garish fifties-retro kitchen curtains and play with my cats.””I found that statement alone to be super heavy. Heavy in the way that maybe from my perspective , that seems so unlike anything I know right now. It sounds like a lot to be super proud of. I don’t know man.Awesome post.
January 23rd, 2008 at 12:44 am
Gawd, I hate to say it, but I can answer this with certainty. The last year has seen some tough times for me and my creative streak left me high and dry. It’s only been recently, since my life has calmed down, that I have even had the desire to write. I think past pain, sadly enough, is helpful in allowing us to connect with the characters we create, and even provide the stimulus for a happy ending (at least in my case). But current pain doesn’t serve any purpose that I can see.
January 20th, 2008 at 5:28 pm
Steve — I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiment that we writers must have a history of some sort of pain, otherwise, how would we be able to write of it? As for the fresh supply of pain to feed the muse, I don’t require it. Sometimes it helps, but it’s an unfocused, maniacal sort of assistance. Still, I’ve met those who insist they do. Whether it’s true, or if it’s more like a drunk saying, “I drive better when I’m lit,” that’s the real question, isn’t it? Your comment about writers being better after rehab is a point in favor of the former.Kate — I think some people do function better alone, or, at least function as well alone as when coupled. Like the way my grandmother decided she would face the thirty years after my grandfather’s death by herself, but my widowed aunt fell into a six-year melancholic funk and didn’t climb out until she’d found a new husband.Lisa — Thank you, and thanks so much for stopping by. Any friend of Steve’s…I like your thoughts on how age/distance gives us the impassivity to view, and subsequently use our pain in a wiser manner. I remember my sister (who is six years older than me) talking to me when I was a junior in high school. She said, “You need to look at the Big Picture.” My genius reply? “I don’t want to see the Big Picture.” Total immersion in the drama gives zero perspective. Spy — And I’m supposed to be the morbid one, here! But, yeah, all my bets on personal sanity are off in regards to me losing the Architect. Although, I don’t think it would give me genius or singularity of purpose in writing. You’ve seen The Simpsons’ Cat Lady? Yeah, that’s pretty much where I’d go.
January 20th, 2008 at 4:58 pm
What a great topic! If anything happened to DH, I could see me falling over that edge (of singularity in purpose, not in genius, LOL). I don’t know. I’d rather not. I don’t know, though. I think I’d rather not. But one never knows!
January 20th, 2008 at 4:28 am
Avery,I found you through Steve Malley’s blog and this is an excellent post. I wonder if the pain that we all feel much more vividly in youth transitions to empathy and sense memory in later life and that can serve us just as well and maybe better with the clarity that distance brings. I hope so. I’d never want to go back to emotional chaos.
January 19th, 2008 at 12:49 am
Interesting and thought provoking, Avery. Strange timing for me as well. I was just having this mental conversation with myself the other day (yes, I’m a little off sometimes – what of it?);) where I had asked myself almost those exact words:”Did their (my) singularity of purpose drive away all other earthly aims, making them intolerable companions, thus fueling their (my) solitude?”In my case, I’m pretty sure that’s true. I’ve always known I’m not good companion material. Even as a kid, I didn’t really ever want to get married and have children, it’s just not in me. Yet, as a teenager who joined a brain-washing fundamentalist cult, I thought it was my lot in life to do so.Now, I love my daughter, but I know she’s often been short-changed by having me as a mother and I suffer a lot of guilt around that.However, back to the issue at hand. I’ve gotten some of my best painting ideas when I’ve been in the throes of despair; however, I’ve been far more productive when I’ve been relatively calm and happy. So, I’m not sure if we give up a chance for artistic greatness by giving up the pain.But, what do I know?
January 18th, 2008 at 8:32 pm
“Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward” – JobWhich is to say, we all have pain. Big deal.Whether or not pain is necessary to the creation of art is an interesting argument. Personally, I think it is, but I can respect the contrary argument. 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. The work can save you in bad times. For some, the work is the single firm place to stand in a life of raging tempest. But the muse comes easier if your present is stable and content. If nothing else, look at how many writers got *better* after sobriety and therapy!
January 18th, 2008 at 5:29 pm
Avery; Thank you & yes–much easier to paint when one isn’t dodging blows. <:\ One difference I notice is that my older stuff involved screaming, threatening dragons 90% of the time (the only outlet my tortured psyche had at the time.) These days my stuff is much more serene. Kudos to Charles for being such a kind, supportive man & for encouraging my sanity.
January 18th, 2008 at 5:14 pm
Lana — Ten years is a long time to wait for the muse to return. I’m glad you found a way to reunite your art and soul without the pain. Even if being happy doesn’t exactly fuel the muse, having a good home life makes it safer to attempt her resurrection, right?Charles — Ah, the poetry. My teenage angst revolved around horrific attempts to purge myself with flowery prose. I shudder to think of those verses ever clawing their way back into the daylight.I do, however, find my most prolific work comes when I’m overwhelmed emotionally. This first novel came after the death of my grandmother, an amazing person I still feel lost without. Oh, and I dig your wife. She’s pretty cool.
January 18th, 2008 at 2:41 am
I’ll say this, I definitely find it easier to write poetry when I’m emotionally tormented. But for prose I generally find it easier to write when I’m happy or satisified. I’m certainly more productive with the quantity of what I write, although in fiction sometimes I know some of my best individual lines or paragraphs have come during periods of emotional upheval.
January 17th, 2008 at 6:28 am
Interesting post! I was confronted very clearly with the fact that my artwork was rage-fueled many years ago, when therapy finally got me past the rage. All of a sudden the artistic drive just vanished. At first it was agony, as though half of my being had been torn away. In a poem I wrote about it, I asked my therapist; “How do I scream now?” There was nothing to scream at anymore, however, so art & I were separated for 10 years. Getting back into it (this past year) has been a hard road in itself. It doesn’t just “come” like it used to. Now I have to find it, I have to force it. We no longer have an easy relationship. You couldn’t PAY me to go back to the horrible years, however. I’d rather lose the art than my sanity.