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1/23/23: Writing, Heartbreak, and the Tortured Artist

Examining the relationship between heartbreak, trauma, and the messiness of poetry.


Hello, my dear, dear reader,


It's been quite some time, hasn't it?


It's been almost a year and a half since the last time we spoke. The reason for this has to do with the title of today's post: For the better part of the last two years, I've been fighting with a seemingly unending sense of heartbreak.


I was hurting.


And a decent amount of me still is.


In the initial stages of my sadness, I wanted nothing to do with writing. I would spend my days in bed, tuned out from the world. I'd find ways to distract myself, either by watching some new series on tv or by drowning my focus in my job; anything I could do to keep myself from thinking.


Thinking was my worst enemy. When I thought, I thought of them.


And I didn't want to write because I knew that if I did, I would only be able to focus on writing about them. It made sense: It was like an obsession; I believed that if I sat at my desk and started writing, I would only spiral into another sad, depressive episode.


But then, one day, I finally did.


And what I discovered was that I had a lot to say.


Sadness and poetry have a very strenuous, long-standing relationship. Growing up, I'm sure we've all heard the phrase "the tortured artist." You see it everywhere in school: Edgar Allen Poe only wrote to escape from the darkness of his own mind, Emily Dickinson is said to have suffered from a mild form of manic depression, Vincent Van Gogh spent his whole life wondering if he was a failure, both in love and life. The list goes on and on and on.



You see it everywhere in school: Edgar Allen Poe only wrote from the darkness of his own mind, Emily Dickinson is said to have suffered from a mild form of manic depression, Vincent Van Gogh dealt his whole life with wondering if he was a failure, both in love and life. The list goes on and on and on.



The trope has become so exhausted that it is almost synonymous with poetry and writing as a whole: to become a revered writer, you must have had a seriously depressing life. And the more depressing, the better.


But why?


I think that to some, the belief stems from what we've seen in history. After all, so many accounts of writers creating their best works come from moments of intense hardships. This includes revered artists like Sylvia Plath, considered one of the most admired poets of the 20th century. In her short time as a writer, she captured life's shocking intensity with brutal, tender honesty.


This includes revered artists like Sylvia Plath, considered one of the most admired poets of the 20th century. In her short time as a writer, she captured life's shocking intensity with brutal, tender honesty.


One of my favorite poems by Plath has to be "Poppies in October," a somber poem that many claim is about Remembrance Day, which commemorated the soldiers who died in World War I:


"Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts.

Nor the woman in the ambulance

Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly —


A gift, a love gift

Utterly unasked for

By a sky


Palely and flamily

Igniting its carbon monoxides, by eyes

Dulled to a halt under bowlers.


O my God, what am I

That these late mouths should cry open

In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers."


-Sylvia Plath, 1962


Melancholic and reflective, Plath depicts a striking contrast between blooming poppies (in a time when poppies do not normally bloom, October) and a world unbothered, with its "carbon monoxides," and eyes, "dulled to a halt under bowlers." She dares the reader to ask: To what end are we allowed to keep living in a world that will continue to move on without us?


This brings me back to the idea that artists must suffer in order to be good writers. Sylvia Plath was a woman who suffered. And like many before her and after her, she turned her suffering into words on a page.


And that's the thing that I think I wanted to get to with this post.


I don't know what Sylvia Plath was going through in her life. I won't ever know why she took her own life in 1963. However, I do know that her poetry is a window into the complexities of life that she experienced. And in her suffering and in her grief, she still found time to sit down and write about it.


Because at the end of the day, when I sit down to write, I think my reasons are the same as Plath's, Dickinson's, or Poe's: We write because we want to try and understand things. We want to understand our emotions even when they get too big, and why so often the universe makes us hurt. It's like Jack Kerouac said:



The whole universe was crazy and cock-eyed and extremely strange.






Now, I also want to take a moment to address the elephant in the room, and that regards the relationship between artists and mental illness.


There is no doubt that many artists who are shoved into the category of "tortured artists" also experienced or experience some form of mental illness. However, it is here that I feel like the motivation for writing is the same: to work things out, to work through the tough stuff, and try to come out of it better or stronger.


How do we say the things we don't know how to?


How do we deal with emotions we don't have the words for?


When sorrow or loneliness or grief feels so big, so overwhelming that you feel like you're going to be swallowed whole, how do you get out?


Those are the kinds of questions that I think about when I start writing my poetry.


When I was younger, I was someone who was a textbook bottler. For the uninitiated, a "bottler" is a person who keeps their emotions inside, bubbling under the surface. I would be slow to anger, annoyance, and sadness. I would come across as unfeeling and sometimes even cold. And the more I kept my emotions under the surface, the more they would start to fill up until one day, it all came pouring out in a rush. After it was over, I'd go back to bottling until, one day, it happened again. Rise. Repeat.


It was terrible.


Yet, it was how I coped with my feelings throughout my adolescence and early adulthood.


And you know what finally helped me break that cycle? Writing.


There are pages in my notebooks that look like warzones. There are scribbles and blacked-out sections of entire pages, with "DO NOT READ" written in all caps. There are tear stains on a good fourth of the pages.


And yet, when I look back on those pages now, I see some of my favorite work.


There's a line from a poem that I wrote in college after my first big breakup that I think about a lot. It goes something like this:


I wish that I could take every love letter I ever wrote you and tattoo them to the insides of my lungs, just so every time I breathe I can be reminded of what it was like to love you.

It hurt to write this. It hurt to think about writing this. But I still did. Not because I was some tortured soul, some edgy poet dressed in all black (I think of the girl from A Goofy Movie, you know the one), but because I didn't know how else to say what my mind had been turning around for days on end. What came out was just what came out.


And that I think is the final point of this post.


I honestly find it kind of silly to refer to writers so often as "tortured artists." This notion that the best art comes out when we are suffering is also just as silly.


Yes, art and writing act as a way of channeling our feelings into something tangible and real, taking the loose threads from our heads and knitting them into a more fashionable sweater or cardigan, take your pick. But if the main point is attempting to understand and bring clarity to life, then why does it just have to be the sad things?


Let me rephrase it: Have you ever looked at something so wonderful that you were struck dumb? And have you ever tried to explain it after the fact? That's essentially every Romantic poem ever written.


Plus, "tortured" sounds so brutal. Like we're whipping ourselves and writing in dark, dingy corners. But writers deserve far more grace than that. And we deserve to give ourselves more grace than that.


Artists are tender. They look at things they want to write about, and then they write about them. They're curious. They chart the uncharted territories of language to find another way of looking at something. Another way of understanding ourselves just a little bit better. We're not tortured; we're just human.


So to that end, dear reader, if you think you need to be tortured in order to be an artist, take a step back and give yourself a little breathing room. Write about the things you want to write about. The good, the bad, and the ugly. And you don't have to limit yourself to just the ugly.



And also, you don't have to dress in all black,


unless you want to.



-JC





4 Comments


This was beautifully written and really vulnerable to a degree that I’m really inspired by and in a way jealous of. To put these words on the page and being so willing to share your most intimate and sacred thoughts and feelings is so beautiful, and I think has to make your writing better.


I took an online comedy class over the summer and the instructor wrote on The Office and he said he learned early on “write what is painful and make it funny” and I feel like in your own terms that’s what you’re hoping to do. Whatever your medium is, take what is most painful to you and put it on the page. And in the end…

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JC
JC
Jan 26, 2023
Replying to

I really appreciate these words, perhaps even more than words can really describe. Thank you for sincerely taking the time to read what I wrote and writing this thoughtful message.


I think your instructor really got it, whatever "it" is. The thing that makes us want to write when things are really, really tough. And like you've mentioned in the past, writing about things you know, things you get, and helping others get it too, creates art that's really something special. I hope we can keep making art like that, well into the future. I'll keep rooting for you all the way.


Love you too, thanks for replying.

-JC

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sydney
sydney
Jan 24, 2023

This is such an important piece to me. I feel like I relate to everything, like you’re inside my brain. The intense sadness that has kept me from writing when it’s the very remedy for the sadness—oh, we’re all the same. It can be really scary to walk around wondering if you’re just always going to hurt this much because you’re a writer. And to feel like sometimes other people think that too. Like melancholy is just the cost of art.


I saw a quote that was like, “We don’t have Starry Night because Vincent Van Gogh had depression. We have Starry Night because Vincent Van Gogh had a brother who loved him.” That reminds me of this piece.


Sorry…


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JC
JC
Jan 25, 2023
Replying to

Thank you so much for sharing your feelings about writing. I've always found comfort in realizing (and maybe even re-realizing) that people have similar struggles with writing, especially the heavy stuff.


So it makes me beyond happy that you felt inspired enough to write after reading this piece. If writing is therapy, then every one of us should try writing at one point in our lives.


And, to answer you question, yes. I think she may have been a formative sexual experience for us all.

-JC

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