The Teaching of Pain - Trust

Big magic: creative living beyond fear - Elizabeth Gilbert 2015

The Teaching of Pain

Sadly, Katie’s story is no anomaly.

Far too many creative people have been taught to distrust pleasure and to put their faith in struggle alone. Too many artists still believe that anguish is the only truly authentic emotional experience. They could have picked up this dark idea anywhere; it’s a commonly held belief here in the Western world, what with our weighty emotional heritage of Christian sacrifice and German Romanticism—both of which give excessive credence to the merits of agony.

Trusting in nothing but suffering is a dangerous path, though. Suffering has a reputation for killing off artists, for one thing. But even when it doesn’t kill them, an addiction to pain can sometimes throw artists into such severe mental disorder that they stop working at all. (My favorite refrigerator magnet: “I’ve suffered enough. When does my artwork improve?”)

Perhaps you, too, were taught to trust in darkness.

Maybe you were even taught darkness by creative people whom you loved and admired. I certainly was. When I was in high school, a beloved English teacher once told me, “You’re a talented writer, Liz. But unfortunately you’ll never make it, because you haven’t suffered enough in your life.”

What a twisted thing to say!

First of all, what does a middle-aged man know about a teenage girl’s suffering? I had probably suffered more that day at lunch than he’d ever suffered in his entire lifetime. But beyond that—since when did creativity become a suffering contest?

I had admired that teacher. Imagine if I’d taken his words to heart and had dutifully set out on some shadowy Byronic quest for authenticating tribulation. Mercifully, I didn’t. My instincts drove me in the opposite direction—toward light, toward play, toward a more trusting engagement with creativity—but I’m a lucky one. Others do go on that dark crusade, and sometimes they go there on purpose. “All my musical heroes were junkies, and I just wanted to be one, too,” says my dear friend Rayya Elias, a gifted songwriter who battled heroin addiction for over a decade, during which time she lived in prison, on the streets, and in mental hospitals—and completely stopped making music.

Rayya isn’t the only artist who ever mistook self-destruction for a serious-minded commitment to creativity. The jazz saxophonist Jackie McLean said that—back in Greenwich Village in the 1950s—he watched dozens of aspiring young musicians take up heroin in order to imitate their hero, Charlie Parker. More tellingly still, McLean says, he witnessed many young jazz aspirants pretending to be heroin addicts (“eyes half-closed, striking that slouched pose”) even as Parker himself begged people not to emulate this most tragic aspect of himself. But maybe it’s easier to do heroin—or even to romantically pretend to do heroin—than it is to commit yourself wholeheartedly to your craft.

Addiction does not make the artist. Raymond Carver, for one, intimately knew this to be true. He himself was an alcoholic, and he was never able to become the writer he needed to be—not even on the subject of alcoholism itself—until he gave up the booze. As he said, “Any artist who is an alcoholic is an artist despite their alcoholism, not because of it.”

I agree. I believe that our creativity grows like sidewalk weeds out of the cracks between our pathologies—not from the pathologies themselves. But so many people think it’s the other way around. For this reason, you will often meet artists who deliberately cling to their suffering, their addictions, their fears, their demons. They worry that if they ever let go of all that anguish, their very identities would vanish. Think of Rilke, who famously said, “If my devils are to leave me, I’m afraid my angels will take flight, as well.”

Rilke was a glorious poet, and that line is elegantly rendered, but it’s also severely emotionally warped. Unfortunately, I’ve heard that line quoted countless times by creative people who were offering up an excuse as to why they won’t quit drinking, or why they won’t go see a therapist, or why they won’t consider treatment for their depression or anxiety, or why they won’t address their sexual misconduct or their intimacy problems, or why they basically refuse to seek personal healing and growth in any manner whatsoever—because they don’t want to lose their suffering, which they have somehow conflated and confused with their creativity.

People have a strange trust in their devils, indeed.