In 1990 I walked to campus reciting this prayer:
“God bring me the whirlwind. Bring the me the storm. Tear me up. Bring the pain.”
Though this particular prayer was a response to a ridiculous relationship that was ending, it also reflected what was a deeper truth for me at the time:
That pain and trauma was necessary to art.
As an angst-y 20-something musician (and let’s face it: what 20-something musician isn’t angst-y?), I cultivated and curated pain like a miser. It was virtually the only emotion that I could easily recognize, and that fact alone made it the most accessible to me as a guitar player and fledgling songwriter.
I was reading this article today on the Huffington Post and it made me think of that prayer, and that time in my life.
It was hell.
It was hell, and it makes me sad to think about the myth that is still so pervasive: that only tortured/addicted/troubled/solitary (the list goes on and on, but you get the point) make art.
What’s even more troubling to me is when I think about how I actually sought out pain and drugs and rejection because I thought it would make me a better musician.
Eventually, somehow I started to wake up. I realized that the rock and roll mythology that I believed in was not quite accurate, and that:
- there are quite stable people who actually make quite exceptional art, and
- there are actually quite troubled “artists” who make horrible, unexceptional art.
In other words, there is no correlation.
Now, what I do still maintain is that great struggle can produce great art: when you read the stories of Michelangelo, di Vinci, the Beatles, or U2, or Wilco, etc., it’s easy to see that some kind of struggle occurs in the midst of producing art, but that struggle does not have to be emotional.
It can be a struggle with pushing the boundaries of technology, whether it’s the number of tracks available in a recording studio or the types of paint pigment that are available.
It can be a struggle with keeping a band together in the midst of losing record deals or changing consumer tastes.
It can be the internal struggle of a writer who is struggling to put into words the vision that is burning inside of her.
But it does not have to mean personal drama.
It does not have to mean pain.
It does not have to mean depression.
(Obviously, for those of us who struggle with depression, we know that sometimes the isolation and melancholy that swirls around us can sometimes give rise to thoughts and feelings that lead to songs or books or poems or paintings… but the point is we don’t need to seek it out.)
Don’t cultivate the pain for the sake of “art”.
Don’t pray for the whirlwind just because you think you need to suffer to create.
Sometimes life is indeed hard; the whirlwind will come on its own, and art may or may not come out of it, but that’s another question.