You Don’t Have to Suffer to Make Art

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic (which I wrote about here), asks aspiring young writers whether their writing loves them. According to her, they generally look at her like she’s crazy — quite rightly, I think. But she uses this question to open up a different point, one that I think is valid.

Via Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert:

Creators often think of their work as a source of torment. They also often think that in order to be an artist, they themselves must be tormented.

I had a boyfriend who used to tell me that I couldn’t be a good writer because I hadn’t suffered enough. (Of course he was happy to help me with that …)

It’s a common idea; Gilbert quotes the painter Francis Bacon on this topic as well:

The feelings of desperation and unhappiness are more useful to an artist than the feeling of contentment, because desperation and unhappiness stretch your whole sensibility.

But she herself takes the opposite approach, and this is a path on which she and I converge:

My desire to work — my desire to engage with my creativity as intimately and as freely as possible — is my strongest personal incentive to fight back against pain, by any means necessary, and to fashion a life for myself that is as sane and healthy and stable as it can possibly be.

She also quotes short-story writer and poet Raymond Carver:

Any artist who is an alcoholic is an artist despite their alcoholism, not because of it.

I agree. (I haven’t spoken to that old boyfriend in many years …)


Whenever I’ve been in deep emotional pain or struggle, when I’ve gone through break-ups, when my parents were getting divorced, when I was diagnosed with skin cancer, whenever things have been emotionally tough and dramatic — that’s when I stop creating. That’s when I stop writing, because the emotions and the situation need my attention.

If I’m sobbing on the bathroom floor, I’m not writing. If I’m drinking an entire bottle of wine and listening to the same song all day, I’m not writing. (Any time I’m drinking a lot, I’m not writing. Contrary to popular opinion, they don’t go well together.) If I’m wondering whether to call my ex or not, I’m not writing.


By contrast, it is when my life is stable and happy and drama-free that I am the most productive creatively (and consequently, even happier). I have worked hard to create a life that is all those things, particularly when it comes to choosing the people I allow into my life. There’s no room for constantly tormented douchebags. I need supportive, easy-going loved ones who understand what I’m trying to do and the toll it takes on me.

Emotional pain is not a badge of honor. It does not support life; it is a sign that something is wrong. It does not feed creativity; it blocks it.

I am not entranced by darkness, and I am an artist.

I am free of torment, and I am a writer.

I am happy, and I am a creator.

If you think you need to suffer to create, I urge you to reconsider.


Wired to Create

Not-So-Tortured Artists: Creativity Breeds Happiness

Heart and Brain: An Awkward Yeti Collection

2 thoughts on “You Don’t Have to Suffer to Make Art

  1. Hi Rachael, I enjoyed reading some of your writing this evening. One idea that resonates with me is quite time. To me, being creative is doing mathematical problems and/or finding a way to make a mathematical concept clear for my students. To be creative being in a quite area without interruption is essential. I find the current generation of college students can’t be without something external to occupy all of there time. How can they be creative in that atmosphere?
    For the last several years when you walk in a class room the room is full of students and completely quite. Every student is using some electronic device. Last semester I walked into a class and it was noisy. I thought now neat is this, the students are communicating with each other.
    Maybe there is hope. Best, Bill Conway

    • 100% agree, Bill! I try to keep both solitude and days that are disconnected from the Internet as big parts of my life.

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