Last month, my cat passed away.
For me, it was the first time experiencing grief of any kind. I thought I was well prepared. “She’s old, and her health is failing,” I told myself. “I know she’ll die soon. I’m ready for that concept.”
While I was still in college, I would hold her tight every time I visited home, knowing that it could be the last time I’d hold my soft, furry sweetheart. I figured, when she did finally die, it wouldn’t be so hard because I had already been spending months at a time away from her.
I was wrong.
There’s nothing you can do to prepare yourself for that moment of grief when the cold, hard truth slams you in the gut: That figure in your life – whether a friend, family member, or even pet – is gone. No amount of alleged emotional stability alters the gaping, black hole that opens up in the place your loved one used to be.
Their absence hurts. It’s as simple as that.
When pain fuels creativity
I figured I wouldn’t be able to write, or do anything creative, on that weekend after we put our cat down. But something surprising happened.
I remember, that first morning, I rolled over in bed and cried softly into my pillow. Then, as I lay there looking up at the ceiling, unwilling to move, I found my mind turning to my novel.
The novel I’m writing is highly emotional, at times. Specifically, there were some upcoming tragic scenes that – until this point – I didn’t know how to write. Before, the scenes playing out in my mind felt… dry.
But suddenly, I could relate to these situations. I understood, at least one some level, what my characters would be feeling.
And inspiration gushed like the breaking of a dam.
I leapt out of bed, skipped breakfast, and dashed straight for my computer. For hours, I pounded the keyboard, trying to keep up with the vivid images, dialogue, and character emotions that flashed rapidly through my mind. Suddenly, I wanted to do nothing else but write.
What, exactly, had happened?
The experts said it best
Writers and artists throughout history have acknowledged the link between pain and creativity. Here just are a few quotes (I found so many online; it was hard to narrow them down!):
“You cannot be a good writer of serious fiction if you are not depressed.” – Kurt Vonnegut
“Painting is nothing more than bleeding on the canvas.” – Andrew Hamilton
“Pain is easy to write. In pain we’re all happily individual. But what can one write about happiness?” – Graham Greene
“The creative process seems indelibly linked to struggle and strife. The world believes artists by nature are meant to suffer.” – Rick Rotante
“I’m one of those unlucky people who had a happy childhood.” – Jonathan Coe
“I am a great artist and I know it. The reason I am great is because of all the suffering I have done.” – Paul Gauguin
Think about the best poetry, songs, art, and stories that have truly moved you, and you’ll notice a consistent theme: Often, the most beautiful art comes from pain. Think about the singers that passionately lament their lost love. Or the painters that express their angst in stunning, soul-wrenching imagery. Or the writers who pours out their hearts on the page.
In one sense, this can be incredibly encouraging. To writers and artists who are experiencing pain and suffering, there’s hope that our struggles always have some sort of purpose; at the very least, we’ll have something beautiful to show when it’s all said and done.
But in another sense, this can be depressing. Firstly, do we always have to experience pain to create truly beautiful work?? No one wants to hear that! Secondly, what about those of us that haven’t really… well, experienced much suffering?
Take me, for example. I mentioned the loss of my cat at the beginning of this post; but as far as struggles go, that’s a relatively small one. (Even though grief in all forms is still painful.) Sure, I’ve had my share of pain and personal demons, but I had a splendid childhood, the best family I could ever ask for, and the 21 years of my existence so far have been free of hunger, material want, or notable physical harm.
Maybe you’re the same way. You’re thinking, “I’ve had a pretty good life. Does that mean I can’t be a good artist??”
This is where empathy comes in.
The pain doesn’t have to be your own
I had a moment several months ago, after writing some particularly emotional scenes, that I sat back and thought, “Where did that come from?”
My characters were enduring all manners of suffering, none of which I had any experience with; and yet I was right there with them, recording their experiences as easily as if I were recalling a recent memory.
But, I had no such memory.
And that’s when I realized… I did.
I had never experienced a broken heart, been the victim of abuse, had familial strife, or struggled with self-harm. But I had friends who had.
I remembered the times I had listened to a friend or family member share their struggles – struggles that were often beyond my experiences, and beyond what I could even understand. Honestly, I’m not naturally a very empathetic or compassionate person, but I realized that deep down, I do care. I do really, really care. And because of that, I felt pain along with my friends.
In effect, their experiences became my own.
It’s true that pain can be the greatest catalyst for creativity. But, that pain doesn’t always have to be our own. Empathy can help us not only be better people, but better writers and artists. And sure, there is still beauty galore to be found in happiness; inspiration can come from anywhere. It’s not to say our lives need to be all “gloom and doom” if we’re to create anything worthwhile.
But, when suffering does bare its nasty, jagged teeth, take heart. It is this idea of pain that connects us as human beings; it transcends cultures, languages, and social barriers, and becomes a universal theme that anyone can relate to, on some level. It is through pain that we often create the most beautiful art, and as a result, find ultimate healing.
Have you ever had a difficult period in your life that yielded a surge in creativity? Or, have you ever experienced the power of empathy in your own writing? Let me know in the comments below!