Misery and Making Art

When I was a kid and having a bad day, my parents would encourage me to play the piano.  They told me to put all my excess emotion into my music.  Sometimes it helped my mood, and I would feel better afterwards.  Sometimes it didn’t.  But when I was in a bad mood, I always played like shit, and felt like a failure.

When I was that age, I subscribed to the “tortured visionary” concept of what it meant to be an artist.  I had this vision of an angsty, depressed, solitary genius that funneled all their misery into fuel for their art.  I didn’t know any artists in real life; all I knew about artists was what I had picked up from books and Hollywood and countless other “media” sources.  So as a child, I assumed this was how it worked.  

But it wasn’t working for me.  I had music and drive and I certainly had lots of negative emotions, but I was playing terribly.  It didn’t fit my vision, but I played so much better when I was happy.  Eventually I had to accept that you don’t need to be miserable to make art.   

That realization changed how I approached my work entirely.  It was actually one of the main reasons I started getting obsessed with self-improvement and productivity in the first place.  I wanted to make my life better so I’d be happier so I’d make better art.   

I decided that I had to be happy to make good art, and over the years this informed many important decisions.  I changed my career path from music, because the 60 hour weeks professional playing required was exhausting—and would therefore affect the quality of my art.  When I switched away from music to modeling, I kept the same mindset.  I traveled less than other models I knew, because touring as a model is incredibly stressful, and focused on local work instead.  

This worked very well for a while, and I thought I had it all figured out.  But of course, there was more to it.  Recently, I got mired in a lot of stress that I was having trouble dealing with.  My boyfriend innocently recommended that I make some art to help process how I was feeling, and suggested I work on my writing.  

Of course I rebelled against the idea.  I already knew that I made terrible art when I was miserable; why would I do it?  But nothing else was helping, so in desperation I finally gave in and gave it a shot.  

And it worked.  Brilliantly.  Not only did I feel better, but I was also doing unusually good work.  I wrote thirty thousand words and finished the rough draft of a manuscript.  What had changed?   I had proven I didn’t need to be miserable to make good art.  But clearly it could work for me as well.  Apparently I didn’t need to be happy either.

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First, let me say that I still believe art is not worth suffering for.  We have a toxic cultural view about creative types that we aren’t talking about enough.  Whether it’s the idea that an artist is chronically depressed, overworked, or just plain unhappy, we start believing that this is necessary to the creative process.  

You do not need to be miserable to make good art.

You do not need to be miserable to make good art.  I think artists should be concerned with self-improvement, self-care, and good relationships.  We should put energy into creating a healthy environment that supports our art, instead of one where we have to create in spite of it.  

But I’d taken my thoughts too far in the other direction.  I’d created a belief that I could only work on my art when things were good.  That’s pretty obviously false.  Worse, it can be just as counterproductive as believing that good art requires a miserable artist.  So what did work?  Sitting down and focusing, and letting my positive and negative emotions give me drive to do work for its own sake, not to fulfill some image of how I was supposed to “be” an artist.  Both beliefs kept me from putting my butt in my chair and actually working, especially when I didn’t feel like it.  Both beliefs were a subtle form of self-sabotage and procrastination.  

That frustrated kid at the piano was partially right: funneling my misery into my art doesn’t make my work any better.  I’d say that being happy does make it easier to create art—at least for me.  But it’s not the whole story.  I have a lot more emotional resiliency now than I did all those years ago, and a lot more practice at my craft.  And now I can make art through the bad times, too.