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The Anatomy of the Tortured Artist: Why “Sad People” Create

Is an artist’s creativity directly linked to the mental pain and anguish that they cultivate?

When I first started writing poetry at the age of 15, I had a privilege not many people my age could brag about — people giving me honest and brutal feedback about areas of improvement. As I wrote more and more, it was pointed out to me many times that what I wrote was bland and lacking in emotion; that there was no authenticity to it whatsoever. So eventually, in pursuit of being a better poet, I started drawing from my own life. And it paid off. To this day, I maintain that honesty is a writer and artist’s best friend. It opens up worlds of possibilities and opportunities to explore when you recognize the value of a poet’s honesty. The truer I made my work, the more it was liked and appreciated.

In mid-2015, my father died. The before and after of an artist in the face of death is drastic. I ate differently, slept differently, looked different, walked differently. And, in many ways, created art differently. My poetry looked like it had been written by two different people, split in time; the people in my paintings had hollow eyes. The cool thing is, people preferred the things I wrote after. This left me — and still leaves thousands of sad artists everywhere — with the question:

Are we growing sadder or better?

Within this fine distinction between artist, and ‘tortured’ artist, lies poetic intimacy. When I’d finally mustered up the spoons to write about my father, the last thing I wanted to do was talk about the uglier things in death — like the feeling of touching a cold body or the look in an aunt’s eyes when she tells you to stay out of holy rituals because you’re on your period. I believe that people ultimately ache to be honest, and these hushed aspects of something so colossal end up finding homes in poetry, in art, in diaries.

It is not easy to bare your entire soul every single time you sit down to write a poem. But, a lot of fear gets shaved off once you recognize the almost formulaic way audiences identify with poetry –people read, register, relate, and respond. And you begin to get used to how cathartic it is to be honest about pain with your work. You live and breathe the trope of the brooding poet.

This myth is associated with a lot of writers, even today — that their talent and their glorified, pressurized sadness exist together in a vacuum, mixing and mingling and blurring together perpetually. And still, they keep pumping poems out, breaking off and distributing pieces of themselves. The audience eats it all up, praises the mad, creative genius.

I read a comment online about Van Gogh’s Starry Night once; to paraphrase, it said that while it was ‘ultimately’ a bad thing that he took his own life in a field, ultimately worrying that he cut his own ear off and ate yellow paint because he thought it would make him happy. It would be wrong to wish his depression didn’t exist because the world would have never gotten something as wonderful as Starry Night. At what point does it become okay to be thankful for mental illness? The audience successfully ends up dehumanizes artists at this point. So many people have died like this, their art stepping and sitting over their deaths; Sylvia Plath, Ned Vizzini, Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf. Stephen King, in his book On Writing, said, “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”

There is truth to this. While it can be hard and painful work to keep your heart gentle despite the pummeling it endures during a creation process, art is about getting well and getting over. Over and over and over and over again.

[Words by: Isha Joshi]
[Featured image: Allef Vinicius]

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