Maybe your mom said it when you told her you wanted to go to art school. Maybe your teacher said it when you mentioned your novel. Maybe your friend said it after complimenting your work.
They meant well. They really did.
But they said it anyway:
“You know, you can’t make a living doing that.”
“Writing is a hard, hard life.”
“Real artists suffer.”
This sentiment permeated the halls of my own grad school experience. We idolized the downtrodden and suicidal. We held up as examples the saddest and the most bereft: Hemingway, Plath, Wallace, and so on. They suffered, so we should, too.
Let’s take a step back and talk about reindeer (trust me on this)
Around Christmastime, a woman brought her son to one of those Santa Land parks—you know, you buy the tree and sit on Santa’s lap and look at all the pretty lights and go home sticky with candy cane. This particular Santa Land was completely decked out: trees, lights, fake snow, people dressed as elves—and actual reindeer.
…and reindeer poop.
The poop smelled. And not like cinnamon and hot cocoa—this was the kind of smell that made the mother’s nose-hairs recoil. She drew her scarf up over her nose and mouth, but her son ran right over to a pile of reindeer droppings—inhaled deeply—and exhaled with closed-eye satisfaction: “REINDEER.”
Because that was reindeer to him. He didn’t know it was a steaming pile of you-know-what; to him, this was reindeer.
This is what I think about the myth that artists need to suffer
We’ve been told over and over—by good, well-meaning people—that to be an artist is to suffer. We must starve. We must be depressed. We must exist in agony or our art will never be art.
We’ve been told this so much we believe it. We’ve been told this so much we don’t give ourselves permission to be happy. We suffer, inhale deeply, and whisper to ourselves: “ARTIST.”
But that’s not being an artist. That’s a steaming pile of shit.
Listen, I do believe that to create meaningful art you need to access deep parts of yourself and deep empathy with your fellow human beings. And it is true that the journey to this understanding can be a difficult one, and that accessing this depth can make us incredibly vulnerable. The ability to turn suffering into art is an important skill.
Being an artist doesn’t mean you have to stay in that dark place forever. It doesn’t mean you have to reject help or purposefully not seek out solutions to your struggles. It doesn’t mean you have to stop taking care of yourself.
That is a big, heaping, stinky pile of reindeer poop.
I’m not saying that you’ll never suffer, or that you’ll never go to a dark place. It happens; we’re human.
What I’m saying is you don’t have to force yourself to stay down, to stay suffering, just because someone told you that “artists suffer.”
The bottom line:
This is a hard myth to break. Sometimes I even find myself holding back from happiness because I worry that it will somehow “ruin” my ability to create, that it will somehow “take away” my artistry.
Let me tell you (and tell myself, over and over): It will not.
You are an artist because you create art. You create art because something deep in your soul compels you to do so. That deep part of your soul does not need to suffer—it needs to be fed.
And I get it—it’s tough. I myself have an anxiety disorder; many of my friends struggle with mental illness as well. When I go to a dark place, sometimes it’s really difficult to pull myself out; I don’t need anything telling me to stay down.
It would be one thing if we celebrated these artists both past and present by noting how they created even through the obstacles they faced. It would be one thing if we focused on their triumphs.
But that’s not what we’re doing.
We’re celebrating the suffering itself, instead of the artist. In this myth, the artist is lost—only the suffering remains.
Mental health issues are exceedingly important to me, and idolizing this as something that “creates art” isn’t helping. Because it’s not the suffering that creates the art—it’s the artist that creates the art in spite of the suffering.
And that’s my challenge to you. I’m not saying you’ll never struggle. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. But I am saying you can overcome—but you won’t overcome if you don’t give yourself permission to do so.
Repeat after me: I give myself permission to create. I give myself permission to overcome my obstacles. I give myself permission to be happy.
Repeat it until it’s louder than the voices that tell you to suffer.
Repeat it until you believe it.
Because I believe in you.
Share this with an artist you love—and then support their work however you can!