Monthly Archives: July 2013

Tortured Artist: Fact or Myth?

A songwriter friend insists he does his best work after suffering a personal setback or a painful experience. Having endured a divorce in the past year, I cannot say the same is true for me. I wrote my first novel, Small Change, when I was married and reasonably content. Since my divorce my daily writing output has dropped precipitously (except during the annual National Novel Writing Month competition).

My personal situation got me thinking about the idea of the tortured artist. This theory holds that authentic art—whether in literature, music or painting—must spring from the well of personal pain and suffering.

The tortured artist idea is the subject of much debate. Christopher Zara, who wrote a book about it, defended the concept in a post in The Huffington Post. “It’s my belief that all great art comes from pain,” Zara wrote. “Van Gogh painted The Starry Night while in emotional torment, Lennon and McCartney forged their creative partnership following the death of their respective mothers, Milton penned Paradise Lost after losing his wife, his daughter, his eyesight.”

Zara explained the basis of his opinion. “Art is a reflection of humanity and humanity’s greatest virtue is its ability to overcome adversity.” Van Gogh, he pointed out, suffered from anxiety, absinthe addiction, and seizures, but his suffering gave him insight, and that insight, in turn, gave the world a new kind of art called Post Impressionist.”

Not everyone shares Zara’s view. Jeff Tweedy, leader of the brilliant alt-rock band Wilco, termed the idea of the tortured artist a “damaging mythology.” Tweedy said the concept impeded his battles with addiction, anxiety, and depression. “I look at it as, the part of me that was able to create, managed to create in spite of the problems I was having, almost as if that was the only healthy part of me,” Tweedy said. “That’s the part of me that I feel like, getting healthier, I’ve been able to nurture.”

What do the scientists have to say about the idea of the tortured artist? An article in Brain World magazine published in August of 2012 posed the question, Do you have to be crazy to be creative? Contessa Schexnayder interviewed scientists and psychologists who had conducted research in this area.

She cited recent study conducted by Professor Fredrik Ullén at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet’s Department of Women’s and Children’s Health, that looked to dopamine D2 receptors in the brain. The study found that many healthy and highly creative individuals had a similar dopamine system as those who suffered from schizophrenia. “Many studies have shown that high amounts of dopamine D2 receptors are responsible for divergent thoughts, which could possibly explain the link between creative people and mental illness,” she wrote. “Highly creative individuals—like many who suffer from schizophrenia—are able to think in more imaginative ways and see unusual and uncommon connections. They can create and associate ideas that most of us are unable to connect. These creative connections are often seen in those who suffer from certain mental illnesses.”

Dr. James Kauffman, a psychologist at the University of California, San Bernadino, conducted a study focused on eminent writers and creators. Dr. Kauffman found that poets, in particular female poets, were more likely to suffer from mental illness than politicians, actresses, artists, and journalists.

“A lot of writing has healthy positive effects,” says Dr. Kaufman. “It’s very good for you emotionally and even physically. But one of the things that makes this so healthy is the presence of a narrative, and the continuous writing schedules. And poetry tends not to follow the same schedule, and tends not be as narrative-driven.”

What do I think? I believe creative thought and expression is inspired by the sum total of an individual’s life experiences: the highest joys and the deepest pains and the range of emotions in between. I also believe it takes time for an individual to process pain. I believe it is critical for a writer to give it time to put intense emotional experiences into perspective, which allows a writer to gain a greater understand the source of the pain and how it impacted their behavior.

What do you think of the idea of the tortured artist?


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The Trouble with (Some) Movies

Two action-adventure movies out this summer typify a problem I have with many contemporary flicks.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” and “Man of Steel” are enjoyable, entertaining movies, for sure. But they left me wondering whether the writers and producers who crank out these movies understand anything about story. They understand the need for action and the need for pacing between the action scenes, but the story to me is always the most meaningful aspect of a good movie.

In the Star Trek movie, the starship Enterprise is sent to the planet Nibiru to study the culture there. When a volcano erupts, Captain Kirk is faced with a dilemma: leave and let the inhabitants die or save the people, but violate the Prime Directive by exposing them to the Starship. He chose the latter, which revealed his character and humanity.

When summoned back to Earth, Captain Kirk loses his command, but Admiral Christopher Pike, who is assigned to take his place, feels empathy for him and assigned him as his first officer. When a secret installation in London is bombed, an emergency meeting is called, but it is a trap and the high command is attacked by a rogue agent. Pike is killed. Kirk is heartbroken, but soldiers on and takes over command of the ship.

So far, so good, but what’s wrong with this picture? There’s a major flaw here. Pike is killed before the movie establishes the relationship between Kirk and Pike. If you hadn’t seen any of the other Star Trek movies (which I hadn’t) the death of Pike would lack import and context. In a novel, there would have been a number of scenes to establish how the bond between these two characters developed and why they care so much about one another.

A second flaw reveals itself near the end of the movie. I won’t spoil the plot, but after Kirk heroically saved the day at mortal personal sacrifice, the dreaded deus ex machina occurred, which marred the ending (for me anyway). I get the old saw, “send the audience home happy,” but come on. Really? To paraphrase the main character, Alvy Singer, in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” “Excuse me but I’m due back on the planet Earth.”

“Man of Steel” does a somewhat better job of weaving in the back story. It begins dramatically with the destruction of the planet Krypton, as scientist Jor-El and his wife, Lara, launch their newborn baby, Kal-El, to the planet Earth on a spacecraft after infusing him with the entire genetic code of the planet. The audience gets a glimpse at his life as a powerful child raised on a Kansas farm. His loving parents learned of his superpowers but advised him not to use them.

Then, through a series of convenient and inexplicable plot twists, he meets Lois Lane. Somehow, this skeptical newspaper reporter comes to believe in him. There is a patina of plausibility to this story, but then the writers couldn’t resist the urge to muck it up with interminable, over-the-top fight scenes that might have thrilled some in the audience, but left me rolling my eyes and checking my watch.

A much better example of a movie where the story is skillfully developed is The Heat, starring Sandra Bullock as a straight-laced FBI agent and the brilliant Melissa McCarthy as a foul-mouthed, but good-hearted Boston detective. The contrast between the two characters makes for tension in every scene. The back story is slowly revealed through authentic dialogue and action scenes. It is compelling, funny, and realistic, throughout (except for the car bombing scene).

The lack of “story” has to do largely with the genre. Action-adventure movies are light on story, while dramas and romantic comedies depend on all of the elements of storytelling one finds in quality fiction writing.

What about you? What’s your opinion of the state of current movies? Do they lack ‘story’ elements?


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Book Review: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, By Junot Diaz

I’d been meaning to read this book for a long time. The critically acclaimed, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 2008 and I understand why.

Junot Diaz is a unique and fresh voice among contemporary writers. His writing is at various points in the narrative street-wise, incisive, academic, tender, and wickedly funny. “Oscar Wao” is the story of one family in Paterson, New Jersey, but it is also the tragic story of the Dominican Republic under the brutal regime of dictator Rafael Trujillo.

Oscar de Leon is an overweight teenager, a self-described Dominican geek and a romantic who pines after girls who won’t ever go out with him. He is a sympathetic protagonist with a fascination for science fiction and he aspires to be the “Dominican Tolkien.”

The story jumps around from the 1980s and 1990s, back in time to the late 1940s, when Oscar’s mother, Belicia Cabral, was a young girl. Her father, Abelard, a wealthy, refined doctor, is arrested and imprisoned by Trujillo for 18 years and Beli’s older sisters both die under suspicious circumstances. Beli is placed in foster care, where she is subjected to child slavery and cruelty before her father’s cousin, La Inca, rescues her.
The omniscient narrator of much of the book is later revealed to be Yunior, a former lover of Oscar’s sister, Lola, and Oscar’s former roommate at Rutgers.

Diaz intersperses numerous footnotes throughout the narrative, a technique that is risky as it takes the reader out of the story. The footnotes often offer historical context for the events in the story, a technique I believe Diaz uses to suggest that the terrible tragedies that befell many Dominican families were the consequences of the ruthless depravity of Trujillo. The dystopian world Oscar writes about in his science fiction works provides a striking parallel to the post-Trujillo Dominican Republic. The book begins with a discussion of the “fuku,” a curse that foreshadows the heartbreaking events that occur in the story.

And yet, in spite of the dark themes, Diaz’s message is one of hope. Oscar, who is a true believer in romantic love, risks everything for the love of a woman. It’s an admirable trait and one that endears him to the reader.


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Book Review: Just About Armageddon, By Jamie Beckett

The second installment in Jamie Beckett’s sci-fi thriller series, Just About Armageddon, finds our reluctant hero, Randy Tagget, aboard a space platform called the Lifeboat Augusta with a carefully selected crew. Planet Earth, as we know it, is gone, victim of a meteorite the size of Manhattan. This crew has no idea how long it will have to survive in space, but that’s not the only problem Tagget will face.

Beckett originally envisioned this series as something akin to the movie serials of the 1950s (think The Rocketman). In the first installment, To the Lifeboats, Tagget is part of an elite group of specialists (engineers, mathematicians, software developers, doctors, agronomists, pilots) chosen for their ability to rebuilt earth from the catastrophic effects of the meteorite. A total of 379 rockets were launched toward three lifeboats and 317 achieved orbit.

Keisha Miller, pilot of Tagget’s ship, was trained by Governor Raphael Fuentes, who establishes himself as the leader of the Lifeboat Augusta. Fuentes is hardly the benevolent dictator. Tagget and a small band of trusted confidants discover Fuentes has designs on a larger empire in space and won’t hesitate to eliminate whoever stands in his way.

Though Tagget doesn’t know who to trust, he eventually forms a secret team with Miller, software engineer Ashish Shah and air traffic controller Ronnie Tarkasian in a high-stakes plan whose failure would not only doom them, but possibly their entire planet.

Beckett uses his background as an airline pilot to create realistic flight scenarios. Tagget and Miller must figure out a way to stop Fuentes, while protecting their co-conspirators.

In both installments, a major theme is the inability of people to work together, even when facing the destruction of the planet. Perhaps this is Beckett’s commentary on the dysfunctional political climate of Washington DC or the inability of politicians to do anything to stop the environmental damage to our planet. Even in space, politics trumps the collaboration of people of different nations and races to survive.

The cliffhanger ending will leave readers hungry for the next installment.

(Full disclosure: CG Blake and Jamie Beckett are longtime friends who met in the 1980s when Beckett was the bass guitar player for Hartford-based band called The Broken Hearts)

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