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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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Unfinished Novels: When to Pull the Plug?

It’s one thing for a novice writer to abandon a novel. I have two unfinished works that will never see the light of day. It’s another for a writer of Michael Chabon’s prodigious talent to leave a novel unfinished. That was the case with Fountain City, which Chabon abandoned in 1992 after five years.

Chabon began writing Fountain City as a follow-up to his fine 1989 debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. The story centered on an architect who dreamed of building the perfect baseball stadium. After five years, he gave up on the project and then reportedly wrote Wonder Boys in seven months.

As this article in The New York Times points out, Chabon is not alone. It may surprise you to learn that other writers who abandoned novels include Harper Lee, Truman Capote, John Updike, Jennifer Egan, and Saul Bellow, among other famous authors.

Chabon revealed his emotional state during the writing of Fountain City when he published the first four chapters with annotations in McSweeneys 36. “Often when I sat down to work,” he wrote in his introduction, “I would feel a cold hand take hold of something inside my belly and refuse to let go. It was the Hand of Dread. I ought to have heeded its grasp.”

He also wrote in the margins of Fountain City: “A book itself threatens to kill its author repeatedly during its composition.” It was a novel, he added, that he could feel “erasing me, breaking me down, burying me alive, drowning me, kicking me down the stairs.”

Chabon elaborated on his reasons for not finishing the novel in an interview with The Atlantic monthly.

One of the greatest benefits is that Fountain City allowed Chabon to write his next novel, Wonder Boys. “Well, it’s pretty hard to imagine that I could have written, or would have been moved to write Wonder Boys without having gone through Fountain City,” he said. “And I stole the greenhouse in that subsequent book clean out of FC. The only part of it I was ever able to salvage.”

Andromeda Romano-Lax discussed unfinished novels, citing her personal experiences among others, in this Huffington Post piece.

Between her first and second published novels, she wrote a different novel and several partial manuscripts. “They weren’t rejected by a publisher,” she wrote. “They didn’t get that far. My first agent—with my own harsh internal censor as Kevorkian accomplice—pulled the plug.”

Romano-Lax mentioned both Chabon’s futile novel and the tortuous experience of Mark Salzman, who was unable to finish his novel and wrote about it in a short book called, The Man in the Empty Boat.

How does a writer know when to abandon a novel in progress? The easy answer is when the writer has exhausted all efforts and the story still isn’t working. That’s not the whole answer. I suspect the real test is when the writer has poured every ounce of energy into the project and just doesn’t feel the passion. That’s the sure sign to give up: the writer lacks enthusiasm for the work. If the writer cannot get excited about a story, there’s no way the reader will.

How do you know when to pull the plug on a novel that’s not working?

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