Say “No” to Being the Tortured Artist

Karina Lafayette – September 2021

Photo by Matthieu Comoy

As a kid just beginning to explore the world of creativity, I grew up seeing the likes of Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse, who were just as known for their power vocals as they were for their addiction struggles. I grew up hearing stories of the infamous 27 Club, and how it was just this normal thing to associate artists with suffering and tragedy. This is what made them legendary. This is what made their work more powerful… apparently.

The years went by and until my early teens I mostly turned to writing fiction, especially fantasy. Then the more life became difficult, the more I was keen on writing “realism”. It always seemed that on a certain level, a lot of my work was the result of pain or some type of difficult experience. While I was lucky enough to not suffer from drug addiction like some people I look up to, experiencing abuse and an isolated childhood was enough to make up for it.

If I wasn’t being yelled at or called names at home, then I had fingers pointed at me by classmates in school. If I wasn’t feeling anxiety or biting my nails, then it meant the other shoe was about to drop because there was no way I could ever be happy. So I took the idea of artistic suffering and wore it like a badge of honour. You see, our society has a way of turning sayings like “pain into power” and “the best art is from suffering”, to make it seem like some type of accomplishment. Like congrats for embarrassing yourself in front of the world, here’s a Grammy. There’s this strange notion that somehow unless we aren’t constantly pushing a boulder up a mountain, then it means there’s no room for inspiration. In reality, an artist who’s always suffering is really just that much easier to be taken advantage of. I think of Motley Crue bassist Nikki Sixx for example, and how he mentions in his memoir The Heroin Diaries that he felt like the reason he couldn’t get help sooner, is because he was writing all the songs. God forbid anyone puts their mental well-being above their career, right?

Now, that’s not to say we actually want to see artists suffer. But to an extent, it’s more surprising to come across an actor, musician, or anyone creative, who doesn’t have something shady or exceptionally traumatic about their past. Don’t get me wrong, everyone struggles at some point, but for artists, it’s at a whole other level, am I right? We eat these bits of gossip up and label them “motivational stories”, and sell other people’s pain in these neat packages to inspire that future Richard Branson or Jeff Bezos. Emotional trauma porn is literally a genre in itself anywhere you go on social media, especially when it comes to stories from LGBTQIA, women, and BIPOC. Don’t get me wrong, I am well aware that the best art can come from painful experiences, but it doesn’t have to. Real life experiences can only do so much but limit the possibilities. If we keep recycling the same stories, where is the hope?

This is why younger artists like Demi Lovato talk about their experiences instead of only making art from them, whereas fifteen years ago they would’ve been laughed at and finger pointed the way Amy was. You wouldn’t believe it now, but back then it was totally fine for the media to take pictures of celebrities high in public, while the rest of us just watched. Struggles like addiction and mental health don’t have to be some open secret people only acknowledge when it’s too late. Many of us would love to see another movie with Robin Williams. The more we’re able to heal the right way, the more we have the chance to find other means of inspiration like through relationships, joy, excitement, nature, and beauty. As much as I’m okay with using my life for some pieces, I’m not going to wear my suffering like it was somehow earned- experiencing trauma shouldn’t be seen as an accomplishment. The main reason why film even became so popular in the Great Depression is because it offered solace from reality. Nowadays we focus so much on post-apocalytic tales and depressive lyrics, it’s like we can’t be bothered with imagining a better world.

And before you assume I’m that person who overidealizes and thinks that every fairytale needs to have a happy ending, consider the fact that just a few years ago I stepped foot in a shelter (which I already wrote about in a previous article). I’ve met people who have every struggle you can think of. I’ve seen some of the lowest points a person can go. I know suffering, but do I identify with it? NO. Survivor stories like mine are beautiful, but I would never wanted to branded as “that writer who already lived in a shelter”, or “that writer who survived her narcissistic mother”. Trauma survivors already spend years untangling themselves from their past, and then spend more years trying to figure out who they are beyond it. I just learned a few months ago that when I laugh, I actually squeal like a little girl. The version of me who identified with her pain didn’t know what real laughter even felt like. I also like to sing when I’m happy (though badly). There’s a lot about me I don’t know yet.

Now that I have more stability and my own home, I write more about astrology and specific themes, and occasionally dip my brush in fantasy, but the inspiration still comes- and that’s the part they forgot to tell you.

You see, even when the tortured artist becomes the hopeful artist, we still continue to paint, draw, write, sing, dance, and act- it’s just the narrative that changes. Pain is temporary. Art is forever.-So by all means, continue sharing stories about overcoming darkness, but while doing so, don’t forget the beautiful, brighter stories around you that haven’t even unfolded yet.

And I can’t wait for you to tell me all about them.

To check out my books, social media and more, scroll to the menu, where you can also book a reading. Also be sure to watch my new short documentary series on the Saturn Return!

(Article first published on Medium)

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