Art from Suffering: Should Authors Try to Heal?

Last Updated September 8, 2016

“As all great art is made from suffering So are we Good in nature, but evil by our own free will Incestuously created by the will to kill”

-Dimmu Borgir “Blood Hunger Doctrine”

A good book does not just share a story. It drags the reader, sometimes kicking and screaming, from the world in which they live and instead immerses them in a whole new place and time. It makes them care about characters they’ve never met, and never will.

It does not do this through well-written prose, vivid description, and sharp dialogue. Rather the author makes an empathetic connection with the reader, and the reader cannot help but follow every twist and turn of the story until the very end.

To accomplish this, the author must be willing to be vulnerable and exposed. The author who can inspire the most empathy is often one who has suffered some trauma. It has been said that great art is born out of great suffering. “I never claimed that art cannot be produced without suffering, only that art produced without suffering is not likely to be very good.” Christopher Zara states in his book, Tortured Artists, a work which looks at the lives of artists “from Picasso and Monroe to Warhol and Winehouse. “

But what if, instead of continuing in suffering and misery, the author embarks on a journey of healing? What if the tortured artist gets better? What happens to his (or her) writing? As their mental health improves, does their art decline accordingly?

The truth is artists have a hard time taking care of themselves anyway. They tend to be eccentric, keep odd hours, don’t sleep or eat as regularly as they should. In addition, if their job is writing or art, forget about regular medical exams, dental check-ups, or all the other things that come to mind when someone thinks about a person who takes care of himself.

However, there are arguments, and valid ones, for putting mental health first. Mental health issues often impact our physical health, and avoiding them creates obstacles to our overall wellbeing. Advances in counseling have taken it from generic talk therapy with mixed results to neurocounseling and other more scientific methods.

But getting a writer to counseling, really to almost any program at all, is a chore. Let’s say, for a moment, that we do succeed, and the writer starts to heal and overcome and face trauma from their past in a healthy way?

Frank Herbert

What was the inspiration for Dune and the creation of the wild worlds of Frank Herbert’s classic novel? Mushrooms. That’s right. The sci-fi master was using psychedelic drugs when he was writing it. What about the rest of the Dune series? Seemingly not nearly as inspired as the first in the series, and certainly not as popular. Was it because Herbert cleaned up his act? Did healing, or at least slowing down on the consumption of drugs kill his muse?

It’s hard to say. Maybe the rest of the books just compare poorly because the first one was so good, and taken on their own are still good writing. Maybe healing didn’t damage Herbert at all.

Stephen King

What about the horror master himself? His early work was well-written and inspiring, but his later stuff is excessively wordy and just not as good as it used to be. Perhaps editors are not as tough on his work because of his name or any number of other reasons. Or it could be that the more mature King is sober.

Don’t get me wrong, he has been sober for years, since his family staged an intervention in the late 1980’s, when I first started consuming his books in great quantity. However, the further one travels from unhealthy addictions, the more (hopefully) one begins to face other personal issues in a healthier way.

Did his mental health make his novels and stories less edgy? His writing less tight? Is there a real correlation?

Maybe this is an unfair conclusion. Maybe King’s later novels are just as good as the early ones, or maybe there is an entirely different explanation.

Ernest Hemingway

Before we travel too far down the path of writers who have turned around, what about those who never did? Hemingway wrote brilliant work until his suicide. However, his despair is well-known, cause by a number of injuries to his family and some to himself, things which often rendered him unable to write.

Those things, along with the genetic disease, Hemochromatosis, which ran in the family and does not allow the body to metabolize iron, may have all been contributing factors.

Philip K. DIck

You may never have heard of this sci-fi giant, but he was in fact, the quintessential tortured artist. He wrote 44 books, but at his peak made a mere $12,000 a year. Robert Heinlein even offered to buy him a typewriter at one point.

Dick was indeed crazy, even believing he was traveling to ancient Rome courtesy of an alien who visited him often. His writing though, was amazing and forward-thinking. How amazing, you ask? He is still the most frequently adapted sci-fi author to date, and passed away just before Blade Runner, the first of several film adaptations based on his books and short stories was released.

Other works of his adapted for the screen include Total Recall, Paycheck, Screamers, and the Minority Report. There have been 11 adaptations of his novels and short stories so far, and more are in the works. These do not include those inspired by his work, but not taken directly from it like the Matrix and Vanilla Sky.

Until the day he died, Philip was crazy, and not just a little bit. The FBI was even watching him, and he suffered from paranoia, believing many of the people he came in contact with were Communists.

This list is by no means comprehensive. It doesn’t prove you have to suffer, be crazy, or addicted to write good stories. Art produced without suffering may not be any good. However, maybe someone who is recovering can still empathize and relate, even pull the reader into a world of healing.

Oftentimes writing is the therapy that facilitates recovery in the author and the reader alike. Perhaps some of those authors who did not heal never really had a chance. Should a tortured author even try to heal?

I think the answer is yes. If healing changes his art, so be it. An artist, like anyone else, should strive to be the best they can be. Hopefully, that goodness will shine through to the reader as a new beauty, free of pain, in his work.

Troy is a blogger, editor, and authorpreneur. More of his work can be found at troylambertwrites.com.

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