Tag Archives: Wilco

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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Doctor Print vs. Mister Kindle

When it comes to print books versus e-books, the reader in me is in a Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde tussle. As Billy Martin said in the “taste great/less filling” beer commercial, I feel very strongly both ways. The true test is when you’re traveling. What do you take with you: a book or your e-reader? On a recent business trip to Kansas City, I couldn’t decide so I took my Kindle–and two paperback books.

I was tempted to go solo with the Kindle, but there are those few minutes when the plane is taking off and the captain tells the passengers to power off all electronic devices. Besides, it’s nice to have a good paperback (or two) in the unlikely event that my Kindle dies or the battery runs low. And since I happened to be reading three books at the same time (my wife thinks I’m crazy for doing that) I brought them all.

In the terminal, I was enjoying the second novel in Kathryn Magendie’s trilogy, Secret Graces. I had my music in my ear buds. I was a happy camper. When I powered off on the plane, I switched to Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird. Since I was almost done, I also brought Bernard Malamud’s The Natural. I was just getting into one of Anne’s excellent craft essays when we hit 10,000 feet and it was back to the story of Virginia Kate Carey. Landing on the first leg of the flight in Baltimore, I had to abandon Virginia Kate in the middle of a dramatic scene and I nearly finished off Bird by Bird.

The longer leg of the flight to Kansas City took me back to Secret Graces and I made great progress, aided by Wilco in my ear buds. I completed Bird by Bird on the descent to Kansas City.

The next afternoon I returned home and cracked open The Natural, continuing to enjoy the exploits of Roy Hobbs as he smote the ball to lead the New York Knights out of the doldrums. At 10,000 feet it was back to Secret Graces for a long stretch. By the time I returned to The Natural, the Knights had risen to third place in the league.

The short flight from Baltimore to Hartford-Springfield had me juggling the two books. I was again forced to leave Virginia Kate during one of the most dramatic scenes in the book. Meanwhile, in The Natural, fans were celebrating Roy Hobbs Day at Knights Field. And then the plot took a sharp turn and that’s where I left off.

The fact is I still love the feel and the experience of e-books, but it’s nice to read about that hot New York Times bestseller and have it on your Kindle within seconds.

Do you prefer print books or e-books? Are you like me and enjoy both?

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