“Great Art” Comes From Pain

*Trigger Warning for self-harm. If you, or someone you know is considering hurting themselves, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255 for help.

In my mind, I was never “f*cked-up enough” to be a good writer. I felt like I needed to prove my worthiness to tell these stories — the only stories that I judged really mattered. I grew up with Thirteen, Lolita, and playwrights like Tennessee Williams, Naomi Wallace and Quiara Alegría Hudes. My household was filled with foreign art films — my friends came from trailer parks and parents with undiagnosed bipolar disorders — and my schools assigned books that pushed limits and pressed buttons. The art that I felt most connected to conveyed at least some kind of struggle with the self. Those stories felt important because they illuminated what I didn’t yet understand but so desperately wanted to.

Sometime around the 5th grade, my peers started describing experiences that had never crossed my sheltered and privileged field of consciousness. I got it into my head that in order to be compassionate and empathetic towards them, I needed to understand what they were describing through experience. Now I wonder if this pathos towards “method acting” (shall we call it?) came from the age old trope of the tortured artist. That in order to create meaningful work, to forge true connections with other people, we must hurt, and be willing to be seen in that hurt. In hindsight, I definitely took the idea a little too literally. The question is, did it make me a better artist?

During high school, I decided to scratch my forearms with scissors and hide the scars with long sleeves for about a month. You see, I wanted to understand why a classmate of mine had willingly cut her forearms. Turns out, no one even noticed my change in wardrobe, and I felt stupid for even trying. In the end, it only made me feel more isolated and lonely. I stopped shortly after I started. In my head, I wasn’t in enough pain to warrant carving it into my skin. It definitely didn’t work as a cry for help, so what purpose did it serve?

Ten years later I sat through nine hours of an ink tree being carved into my spine. Then, I understood why someone might want their outside to match their inside. It’s a confirmation that we’re not crazy — that we can still feel — that we’ve earned the strength that has come from what we’ve been though. They are marks that identify these various rights of passage. The pain — re-experienced in a controlled environment that we choose — can be cathartic and healing in the right context. I now have a piece of art covering my entire back because I experienced pain that necessitated an expressive outlet. That tattoo wouldn’t have come to be without experiencing great loss and hardship. Frankly, I wouldn’t have needed it.

In high school I wrote a short story about young waitresses being abused by their bosses and sneaking vodka into takeaway soda cups on breaks so they could stand to get through the night. Yes, that one came from a personal experience. When I started acting in school plays, the only roles that ever felt fulfilling were that were the most intensely and darkly emotional ones. My BFA in Theater Arts culminated in my performance of a masochistic, drug-addicted porn-star/prostitute who found herself trapped in a house with a sadist biker and a sexually repressed teenage boy from New Jersey while the world was ending around them. I craved a connection with this angsty, shadowy side of human nature because I bought into the story that it would make me a better artist.

Looking back on these self-destructive patterns makes me a little sad for that younger version of myself who got the message that these experiences were prerequisites. Yes, I’ve had my heart broken. I’ve experienced hopelessness and the need to numb what feels too big to process safely. I’ve hurt myself intentionally. I’ve manipulated other people. I’ve seen loss firsthand, and said goodbye to a parent. I’ve been addicted. I’ve been strung out. My body has been used against my will and without any retribution. Does this make me a better storyteller? A more worthy one? I honestly don’t know. At the very least, it’s given me stories to tell.

No matter what I’ve practiced, I don’t believe that pain is a necessity for art. And I strongly discourage you from attempting to follow in my footsteps. Self-harm rarely encourages open and meaningful discourse. More often than not, it allows for further alienation, isolation, and danger. I think what we are all referring to when we say that art comes from pain is that pain experienced fully is a part of a life lived honestly. Great art is often the product of a need for expression, for a processing that can’t be done any other way, but it doesn’t need to come from suffering. I think the only requirement for “good” art is empathy. It’s that honesty, that authenticity, that feeling of connection and a tether between souls that we’re looking for.

If anything positive came from my foray over to the dark side, it’s that it forced me to seek help, to practice expressing myself in healthy ways, to cultivate a strong sense of empathy for others. My pain did not make me a better writer. My willingness to work through it and figure out how to express it safely — did. My suffering is not art, my perspective on said suffering is.

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