Thursday, January 28, 2010

Tortured Artist? Pass.

I just read a post on Make and Meaning about the Tortured Artist Myth, and how annoying it is when people expect artists to be tortured in order to be great. Of course, it's not a new discussion (thank God not everyone thinks of Hemingway's alcoholism as romantic. He would be on my list of Top 10 Famous People I'd Never Want to Meet or Hang Out With. But I digress), and yet I find my response to that mandate still evolving, my current migraine-tortured state notwithstanding.

I remember a moment at my thesis defense for my Masters in Writing during which my thesis adviser asked me if I was committed to continuing to write. I can't remember her exact words, but I don't think they were even formed as a question. She was almost giving me a scolding, telling me that I had a gift for writing, and therefore an obligation (to whom?) to use it--not to waste it, or let it fall by the wayside.

I look back on that moment now and I hate it. Why did she do that? What right did she have to tell me what my mission in life should be? I'm probably reading too much into her behest, but that's what it feels like, that she's still looking over my shoulder waiting for me to write that book of serious poetry, and shaking her head in disappointment that I'm wasting my time writing a blog and watching movies (note: Happy Go-Lucky, a great movie I just discovered about how being happy is not stupid). Of course, it doesn't help that I really admired her and that she had goddess standing with most of the people who knew her or were her students. Like many prophets, she often gave cryptic feedback. And so, to get this clear mandate from her that I better go out there and be a very serious artist or else--well, that was a bit overwhelming. I wonder, is this required of thesis advisers, the big talk that shall impress upon the student the momentousness of the masters degree?

Maybe she really was being mightily serious, or maybe it was my state of mind at the time. I had just lost Miranda, my first pregnancy after several years of trying. I was still in shock. I only asked for a couple of weeks extension to finish my thesis (a novel), which seems ridiculous looking back now.

A few months after graduating, I started writing what I thought I should be writing—a novel based on my tragic loss. I've written the opening about 20 times. Why do I quit after that? Because it's too depressing! See, here we go with the tortured artist thing. I'm a writer with oodles of talent and I've suffered a tragedy that I don't want to write about. Does this make me an irresponsible artist? That's what it feels like, that my thesis adviser is sitting back in her chair with her arms crossed over her chest, admonishing me for being a coward. My choices seem to be Happy Coward Artist or Depressed Courageous Artist. How's that for Let's Make a Deal, huh?

Well, here's the thing. I don't need any help being depressed. I have a history of depression. I have your garden variety depression, mostly controlled by medication, and I've had post-partum depression. I've been hospitalized before for depression. I have had depression long enough and have done enough self-education and therapy to recognize when I am sinking and need help. And trying to write that courageous novel makes me sink. I find myself at the edge of the ocean where I can either leap into the depths to find that character's pain and motivation and conflict, or, turn around and walk away on level ground. I choose not to leap in. I choose to be a different kind of artist. The not-tortured kind.

I did write a short essay about losing Miranda, from a sort of sideways perspective (about how learning to knit got me through some of the really rough times afterward). I was proud of what I wrote, but at the time I figured it wasn't that important, because it wasn't a full-on experience of the tragedy itself. Well, lo and behold, a publisher showed interest in the essay for a book. At first I agonized over trying to make it bigger, more tragic. My editor wisely advised against this, and the essay was subsequently published in a book called Knitting Yarns and Spinning Tales.

Some people assume that the best, most prolific time for a writer is when they are in great pain. Maybe it is for some artists. I don't know. Is Hemingway's unique writing style the result of being an alcoholic? What would he have written if he'd quit drinking? Maybe if I was willing to exacerbate my depression, then I could produce a great novel about loss. Maybe not. And even if we accept that tortured artists create great art, it's a logical fallacy to conclude that because tortured artists create great art, then non-tortured artists do not create great art. As Kirsty Hall points out in her Make and Meaning post, our culture is obsessively enamored of tragedy and spectacle. What great art are we missing by looking only for tortured art? Can we even recognize great art by non-tortured artists anymore, or are we blind to it unless it is spectacle?

I gotta go. I feel like a movie.

Response to Chris' comment:
Yes, I agree that writing can be great therapy at times. But that kind of writing is a completely different thing than writing for others to read, as you rightly point out.

And how many writers falsify their experiences in order to get on that stage precisely because they've been so influenced by this culture of spectacle? I'm thinking of writers like James Frey and his A Million Little Pieces, which is now described by Wikipedia as a "semi-fictional" memoir. "Semi-fiction"? Isn't that like sort of pregnant? We're willing to fudge the truth in order to make it a spectacle and get the attention that defines a great writer in this culture. Ugh.


Chris said...

Thank you for this post.
I'm not sure what I think of all this definitively, but my immediate position whenever the topic comes up is that a person can choose to do whatever she wishes about her pain and suffering, including creating a piece of writing. Writing it out is a great therapy, but there are some things no one else is ever going to 'get' and that you can't fully share. I think a lot of writers who fall aside mistake indulging themselves on the public stage for creating something that resonates with readers.

I didn't know you were in this book! What the hell!???!

Kirsty Hall said...

What an insightful piece of writing, Merc; I'm glad you found food for thought in my Tortured Artist post.

That 'great American novel' or 'I must be better than Picasso' style of thinking is so ingrained for many creative people but I find that it really gets in the way. I can easily tie myself in complete knots when I start worrying about whether something is good or serious or important enough. I find its far better to make work I enjoy because that work actually gets made!