Lately, I’ve been considering the idea of the “tortured artist” (a term that, for whatever reason, always conjures for me a picture of Oscar Wilde, his hair parted and that solemn, pensive expression). Though I’ve always had at least an idea of what was meant by the term, some sad, lowly person crying because “no one understands”, I hadn’t fully understood it until recently, when at a panel discussion on arts organizations and their connection to cultural change, I heard it articulated so well by a certain Executive Director of a local theatre company, Art is something you feel inside of you. It states what cannot be said.
If you’d ask any of my friends who are not artists and do not claim to be, those who work respectful jobs in law, healthcare, and social work, being an artist means something equitable to depravity. Why on earth would anyone choose to be an artist? Leaving out the financial struggle, let’s consider the societal ignorance, the cultural lassitude, the consideration that no one, not even your family, will truly understand what you do until it’s what’s paying the bills (even though it won’t pay your bills for a very long, long time, and may, in fact, never). And for what? Who would choose this?
I’m turning 28 in just under two months, and as I write this, I am finally comfortable calling myself a writer. I’m not sure when it was that I knew this was something I actually desired. Surely I wrote little stories and poems as a child that my mother hung up with odd-shaped magnets on our refrigerator door. I recall beginning sometime in middle school a fascination with (what I presumed then were) really great song lyrics. My tastes were indiscriminate: from Avril Lavigne to Something Corporate to Jay-Z to Aerosmith (seriously). The only thing they had in common were lyrics that, in one way or another, spoke to me. My obsession was so emphatic that almost all of my idle time was taken over not by doodling, but by scrawling these lyrics over and over, my favorite verses written several times, over every notebook I owned, in bright, multi-colored, vision-splitting gel pens. By the end of the school year, the front, inside, and back covers of notebooks from Government to Algebra (one notebook in particular, that of a freshman Speech class, sticks out most prominently in my mind) had become so cluttered with my handwriting, it became absolutely indistinguishable to tell where one verse ended and a particularly interesting chorus of another song began.
On top of this lyrical insistence, I read. A lot. I assumed everyone did. Mostly what I read were books unfairly labeled as “chick lit” – those stories where a young woman lives in a big city and finds and loses love, a job, or a best friend (only to get one or all back by the end of the story). At thirteen, weighing in at less than 100 pounds, with glasses, braces, and—seriously—a back brace, I was not the woman I read about in those books. Which was okay, because I wasn’t trying to be them. What I was fascinated by were the women who wrote the books. It seemed like such an awesome feat, inventing characters, sustaining a story, and so completely out of reach. But, as with the lyrics, I was latching on to something I couldn’t yet articulate. Now I understand that I was recognizing the power of words.
Which brings me back to the tortured artist. The very point of being an artist (or a writer, musician, dancer, actor, comedian) is not that you choose it, but that it chooses you. Thus the tortured part. Because, unfortunately for us, being an artist is something that affects us viscerally, on a cellular level. It’s what makes us wake early or stay up too late working on a piece that’s been formulating in our heads during the hours or days someone or something kept us from creating. It’s that feeling of needing to keep going, just one more sentence, one more measure, one more brush stroke, despite the dinner left unattended and burning on the stove (ahem, current situation). It’s what makes it completely unreasonable to take seriously the job that draws you away from creative thought to instead focus on something like sales, or, dear god, customer service.
But I have no idea who or what I’d be without it, and I bet you don’t either. I’m lucky enough to have a position that allows me to write every day, and involves me writing on behalf of an arts organization that understands this inward need, but still there are moments, admittedly, where I question why I “chose” writing. Those moments when I fall back into the same thought patterns, worrying that I’m not doing enough, not making enough, not able to move on from IKEA for apartment furnishings. And in those moments it’s imperative to remind myself of just one thing.
I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else.
And so I say this to you, the tortured writer/singer/painter/photographer/beat maker: would you, really, be happy doing anything else? Or is the need to create so ingrained that you couldn’t imagine not giving in to it?
Are we really that tortured after all?