Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Personal Anguish

By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 19, 2012

[The blog is on vacation this week. Here’s a favorite post from 2009. Back soon!]

What happens to us as artists when our personal lives crash and burn? When we’ve lost our spouses or our homes or our minds; when we’ve been betrayed or, worse, betrayed someone else; when it’s three in the morning and sunrise feels like it’s never going to come?

The Scream

Some of our best work can be done in this state of mind

Here’s my experience: some of my best work has been done when my personal life was in chaos.

This seems to make no sense. How can we do good work when it’s all we can do to keep from checking into Bellevue? But we can. Weird as it seems, internal catastrophe never hurt an artist or an entrepreneur.

The Muse, it seems, is a hardcore kinda gal.

The painter paints and the writer writes from a place that is safely below that of the merely personal. Where do ideas come from? How do breakthroughs manifest themselves? This stuff is percolating at a level way beneath heartbreak, illness, deaths of loved ones, addiction, jail terms, being waterboarded. Even our crimes against others and ourselves are absolved on the level where creativity takes place.

The Muse, if she’ll forgive me, is kind of like a mailman. She makes her rounds every day, cruising past our offices and studios and peeking in the window. Are we there at our easels? The Muse likes that. She likes to see us taking care of business. And if we’re there with our hearts breaking or tears streaming down our cheeks, all the better. The Muse says to herself, “This poor bastard is true to me; I’m gonna give him something in return for his loyalty.”

And into our heads pops the solution to Act Two, the bridge to that song we couldn’t lick, the breakthrough concept for our new philanthropic venture.

I’m not saying pain is good. I’m not advocating screwing up our lives for the sake of art. I’m just making the observation that our genius is not us. It can’t be hurt like we can. Its heart can’t be broken. It’s going to send the next trolley down the track whether we like it or not.

In a way it’s kind of scary–the relentless, impersonal, almost monstrous nature of creativity and inspiration.

The good news is this: no matter how much pain we’re in, no matter how badly we’ve screwed up our lives, no matter what felonies we’ve committed, we can still find refuge in our work. Like the athlete who makes the decision to suit up, even though his father or his best friend has just died, we can have the game of our lives in the midst of excruciating personal agony.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

8 Responses to “Personal Anguish”

  1. Basilis
    September 19, 2012 at 1:35 am

    I suppose that Work can be done like in the Scream painting state of mind as long as we don’t jump from the bridge!

    (Perhaps because of the work the screaming person is not jumping! :-) )

  2. September 19, 2012 at 8:20 am

    I have to agree Steven, I began to write regularly after my daughter Hannah died.I really love your image of the Muse taking pity on us.

  3. Wolf rimbaud
    September 19, 2012 at 1:05 pm

    I’m so tired of hearing his fallacy. This is purely the domain of the amateur. Songwriting is a craft that requires technique. All this stuff about ‘the muse’ isnpurely for those that have no idea what they’re doing. As Stravinsky said, music is 10% inspiration and 90% sweat.

    • Basilis
      September 20, 2012 at 3:41 am

      Hello Wolf,

      What about if we don’t want to sweat any longer? When we have lost our patience after a long trying period or (even worse) we “fall asleep” when we have achieve an important goal?

      I’m talking not only as a writer, but as a music composer. There are a lot of complication in the writing-recording-promoting precedure and the way we think, what we fear, what makes us lazy, are dealing a lot with our “sweating process”.

      P.S. Indeed Stravinsky phrase it in an excellent way! 10% inspiration-90% sweat.
      To tell the truth when we are in our “desert” we sweat a lot more than being in Greek Islands laying on the beach…

      Steve, I expect an article based on this metaphor.

      (:-))

  4. September 19, 2012 at 4:08 pm

    So true- though sometimes it seems that creating when you’re sad is easier than creating when you’re happy. The danger is getting addicted to misery as a driving force for your creativity.

    What I took away from this is that the creativity keeps coming whether you’re happy or sad or depressed or angry so there’s no need to suffer to be an artist – but if you are suffering you can still turn the pain into gold.

  5. September 20, 2012 at 10:08 am

    The joy of art is that it can make pain and suffering into something beautiful. And somehow, when you’re using the pain to create, it doesn’t hurt so bad.

  6. September 20, 2012 at 10:51 am

    True that! I was pleased and surprised to find some amazing research confirming this type of creative mindset. If anyone is interested check out “Your Creative Brain” by Shelley Carson PhD. The “Transform” function seems to be all about using pain in the creative process.

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