Pain and suffering and developing creativity

“I’ve suffered enough. When does my artwork improve?”
Refrigerator magnet from

“Suffering is justified as soon as it becomes the raw material of beauty.” Jean-Paul Sartre

The tortured artist mythology is an ancient and enduring notion: The idea that art depends on suffering, and artists are likely to be fraught with suffering and dark emotions, and even need their pain to create.

But a number of artists say that is a wrong idea.

Colin Farrell

In his appearance as a guest on The Ellen Show, Colin Farrell said he was finding that he is more creative being sober and happy.

“I was terrified that whatever my capacity was as an actor would disappear when I got sober,” he admitted.

“I ascribed to the notion that to express yourself as an artist, you have to live in perpetual pain.

“And that’s nonsense.”

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In the compelling crime drama TV series “The Killing” (set in ‘always raining’ Seattle, hence the design of this promotional poster), detectives Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) try to solve the murder of a young girl.

[Photo from AMC tv site for the show.]

In her profile article, Lisa Rosen notes that Kinnaman continues to struggle with smoking, and used an electronic cigarette during their interview.

“I’ve always had an easy time quitting. I’m just really good at starting up again,” he admitted.

Rosen says, “Not shocking, then, that Kinnaman felt his way into Holder’s character through addiction. His research included visiting NA and AA meetings, and meeting people who struggled with meth.”

Kinnaman notes, “He’s got this restlessness within him that comes from this void that he has, that he’s tried to fill with drugs. I wanted to feel that restlessness in his body language, that he’s never standing still.”

Rosen noted this is something else the actor shares with his character, and that “He’s in constant motion, tapping his foot against the table leg for the entire interview.”

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[By the way, in my article Gifted, Talented, Addicted, I speculate that many talented people use drugs to try to deal with the emotional pain of intensity or excitability and high sensitivity.]

Romanticizing the wounded artist

Kinnaman says that in European theater circles, “there’s this romanticizing about the wounded artist; you have to be in pain to be able to portray pain.”

But he considers that nonsense. Preparing for his stage debut role of Raskolnikov, in an acclaimed production of “Crime and Punishment” in Stockholm, he “set out to be as positive and happy as possible in his real life. That translated to the role in ways he didn’t expect,” Rosen notes.

Kinnaman said, “Nobody wants to be depressed — everybody’s trying to feel better; when they strive and fail, it’s all the more poignant.” The audience response was overwhelming.

“That made me feel very confident that I could be who I am. I think Mireille comes from the exact same perspective. She’s a bubbly, happy person on-set, because she knows she has complete access to any depths of darkness.”

From Joel Kinnaman gets outside himself for ‘The Killing’ on AMC, by Lisa Rosen, the Los Angeles Times May 26, 2012.

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Cheryl Arutt, Psy.D., a psychologist specializing in creative artist issues, says “Many creative people carry the belief that their pain is the locus of their creativity, and worry that they will lose their creativity if they work through their inner conflicts or let go of suffering…”

From one of her guest articles on this site: Affect Regulation and the Creative Artist.

Video: Psychologist Cheryl Arutt on Creative People and Sensitivity and Suffering

Also hear much longer audio interview:
Psychologist Cheryl Arutt on Creative Artist Issues.

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Troubled relationships can be one source of pain.

In an article about the London debut of the opera “Prima Donna” by singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, and his album “All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu,” writer Tim Adams comments “Songs for Lulu is, Wainwright says, something of a homage to his former party-loving and addicted self – Lulu – seen from the vantage of hard-won sobriety.”

“Wainwright feared once or twice that his settled relationship with theatre producer Jörn ­Weisbrodt might have a debilitating effect on his gift for tainted love songs, the yearning, nuanced ballads, one part Morrissey, one part Mahler, with which he made his name.”

He quotes Wainwright: “I wondered if not being in these fatalistic disasters with boys, I would lose this dark lake of pain to drink from. But I needn’t have worried too much,” he says, with his wild laugh.

“In many ways, Songs for Lulu is a reaffirmation of that persona. Highly romantic, highly unstable. I mean, what I have found is that once you give up on a life, it doesn’t go away.

“You are always appeasing, or bargaining with, or neglecting that former self, the spirit who used to be behind the wheel, and would like to be still. I don’t cross to that side of the street any more. But it is important for me as a healthy person to acknowledge that the demons are still around.”

[The Observer, 21 Feb 2010]

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There are, of course, plenty of examples of artists using creative expression to transform pain.

Frida Kahlo paintingFrida Kahlo (1907-54) painted a series of self-portraits, including this powerful image (at the right) “The Broken Column” (1944), a depiction of the years of treatment (including orthopedic appliances) she had to endure for a devastating spinal cord injury at age nineteen.

Salma Hayek commented about portraying the artist in the movie “Frida” (2002, directed by Julie Taymor), “For me, the most important thing is that she decided not to be a victim.

“A lot of people see the paintings and the cliches – Frida sufrida, the victim, the martyr. She was a woman who had a lot of pain in her life, but that didn’t stop her from having this wonderful love affair with life.”

Kahlo commented, “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.”

Related post: Nurturing creativity in solitude.

In her article Creativity, the Arts, and Madness, Maureen Neihart, Psy.D. says, “A basic premise of the expressive therapies (e.g. art, music, and dance therapy, etc.) is that writing, composing, or drawing, etc., is a means to self-understanding, emotional stability and resolution of conflict.

“Creativity provides a way to structure or reframe pain.”

So do we need to suffer to be creative?

Musician Sting was asked about this in the documentary All We Are Saying: “Do I have to be in pain to write?

“I thought so, as most of my contemporaries did; you had to be the struggling artist, the tortured, painful, poetic wreck.

“I tried that for a while, and to a certain extent that was successful.

“I was ‘The King of Pain’ after all. I only know that people who are getting into this archetype of the tortured poet end up really torturing themselves to death.

“And I’m thinking, well, I would just like to be happy,” he continues.

“I’d like to do my work, and be a happy man. I’ve got enough memories of pain, of dysfunctional living, a reservoir to last me the rest of my life, so I don’t really need to manufacture that kind of life to be creative.

“Songwriting is every moment of your life, so if you’ve committed yourself to your art, you don’t need to go back.”

[Also see his memoir Broken Music]

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Actor Maggie Gyllenhaal has also addressed the stereotype.

In an NPR radio interview about her film “Sherrybaby” she admits she wasn’t very open to having creative discussions with the director, on account of the closed-down personality of her character, and she added, “I’m not someone who believes ‘The more tempestuous the better; if we have a really horrible time, that will somehow lead to great work.’

“I don’t think that. I would much rather have a collaborative, trusting, good relationship with the people I’m working with.”

But the suffering of anxiety and depression has historically – especially before better treatment – afflicted writers and other artists.

Psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison notes in her book “Touched with Fire” that the majority of people suffering from a mood disorder “do not possess extraordinary imagination, and most accomplished artists do not suffer from recurring mood swings.”

She writes, “To assume, then, that such diseases usually promote artistic talent wrongly reinforces simplistic notions of the ‘mad genius.’ But, it seems that these diseases can sometimes enhance or otherwise contribute to creativity in some people. Biographical studies of earlier generations of artists and writers also show consistently high rates of suicide, depression and manic-depression.”

[Quotes are from my article Creativity and Depression.]

Actor, producer, and writer Cynthia Brian says in her book Be the Star You Are!, “What I have learned is that pain, suffering, emptiness, and loneliness are an important part of the human experience. Sorrow and pain make us want to contract and withdraw, not expand and excel.”

Video: “Happy Talk: Sharon Salzberg + Josh Melnick (excerpt)”

“Can you be happy and still create great art? Or can meaningful art only come from angst?

Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg addresses this question from artist Josh Melnick…” One of her books: “Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace”.

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Creating depends on how open we can allow ourselves to be to both our inner and outer lives, and on our capacity to stay emotionally balanced, not tortured.

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Agitation or Not – Eric Maisel on Calm and Creativity

> His related book: Mastering Creative Anxiety

Video: “Exploring Self-Regulation, Trauma and Creativity” with Cheryl Arutt, PsyD, a clinical and forensic psychologist, and specialist in creative artist issues.

Abuse & creative expression

Healing & art

Creative People, Trauma and Mental Health – see resources section at bottom, including:

The Mental Health TelesummitThe Mental Health Telesummit

The Tapping Solution

Academy for Optimal Living online course by Eric Maisel: Why Smart People Hurt
– Also see related article: Brainpower and The Smart Gap.

Article: Madness and creativity: do we need to be crazy? – The mythology of the mad artist continues in various forms, supported to some extent by research. – One of many quotes: Cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman comments: “I do believe that If the mental processes associated with psychosis were evaporated entirely from this world, art would suck. But so would a lot of other things that require imagination. Too much psychosis and one is at high risk of going mad. But everyone engages in psychosis-related thought any time they use their imagination.”


Depression and Creativity  |  Depression and Creativity / Facebook

Anxiety Relief Solutions


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Originally posted 2012-07-27 10:25:57.


  1. I think that pain and suffering helps us to realise what great life can be like.  I myself have gone through some seriously challenging life situations but they have made me stronger and wiser  and also wealthier.  I say share your pains and you will become a success!:) 

  2. What a load of nonsense. All people suffer, and some of those are artist. It is requisite to humanity, not to creativity. It is true that suffering happens to make good subject matter for art. This is simply because everyone experiences it, so everyone can identify with it. It is lucky, then, that everyone gets enough of it to last a lifetime of it without any need to encourage self-destructive behaviour.

  3. Valid Suffering is the feeling of things being harmful to keeping our DNA alive and calling us to rectify it.
    It is alarming, correcting, learning, creating, and the driving force of human evolution.

    ((See: “Happy Life, Instinct, Wisdom, and Human Computer System” at or “Is Your Happiness Valid?” Kindle/paperback book at

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