Tortured Artist?


Writers have long been plagued with the notion that in order to write well one must be tortured, either by their past or their present. There have been plenty of times I admit to buying into the idea of needing to be in a dark place, allowing the pain to present itself to the paper with the only form of expression I know to obtain relief – the written word. While I do think pain is especially provocative and stimulating for a writer, I don’t think it’s necessary for a writer to write well. I won’t argue with the songwriter who says they wrote their best sad songs while depressed or drunk. There’s plenty of evidence to prove them correct. Even Hemingway is quoted with saying “…all one has to do to write is to sit at a typewriter and bleed,” but do we have to be in a place of emotional hell to write deep, meaningful or painful writing? We need to be able to have balance in our lives don’t we, to be able to write all forms of emotion, even while in a very happy place in one’s life? To put this idea to a little test, I wrote the following.

bulbs,Christmas,decorative elements,ornaments,trees,evergreens,holidays,special occasionsTis the Season…


Giddy from the butterflies that light from dawn to dusk,

Drunk on wine sweetened with the ripened fruit of lust.


She didn’t catch herself before she fell – too late she’s going down

Her heart is full of summer, her soul is winter bound.


He whispered with a silver tongue, dreams made for two

Until fear grabbed him tight, former promises now untrue.


Ruined he’d be, in his little town of ten – what would people think?

Oh, what would they think of him?

A king of a man, fallen from his pedestal on high, surely he’s not capable of

Living such a lie?

It must be the wretch; she’s the reason for his fall

Why else would he stray, why else, after all?


No matter that he pretends no damage has been done

He’ll always know in the quiet moments that he lost ‘the one’


She’s always wanted a Christmas tree adorned with ornamental balls

Since his seem sure to fit the bill, now she knows who to call


Okay – so I made light of the situation in the end, but I was shooting for spitefulness. Do you think I lost my ability to stay focused on the intensity of the original sentiment? Do you think we write better when experiencing personal difficulties? Are there any happy writers out there? What are your thoughts on the matter?

44 responses »

  1. Both my novels have sex in them (darned good sex I might add). I haven’t had that for seven years. Sex I mean, not just good sex. But I remember it well. I do all I can to keep my real life conflict and drama free. But I write fiction full of conflict and drama.

    We’ve all felt pain, dejection, abject fear, happiness and joy. Feeling emotion is like riding a bike, you never forget. They are part of you. So call upon them when needed to write the proper emotion into your work for the piece you are writing.

    I’m a happy person, generally. If I had to live in pain to write well, I either wouldn’t write, or I’d slit my wrists. Well, okay, I’m too big a chicken for that…

    • So glad you stopped in Julie. You are so right about never forgetting those feelings. I think perhaps it takes some discipline to get to a place where we can call upon those feelings while writing and then turn them off once we set the pen aside. Writing does tend to make me moody sometimes. I have to keep it in check or I’ll feel the emotion so deeply and get lost in my character or piece. On a more personal note, if you’ve reached a 7-year sex-free period, it may be time to make a change… lol

  2. While I think emotional cataclysms can provide nutritious food for creative thought, I’m unconvinced they help with writing while one is in progress–at least for me, anyway. I prefer to achieve a Zen-like state while writing, where the words practically spring unbidden onto the page. It’s harder for me to do with a slavering creature of tumultuous thought gnawing upon my well-being.

  3. For some reason, when I respond to others’ blogs these days, I find myself scraping the figurative bottom (or maybe not the bottom, maybe peering far into the background) of things I learned from others about literature. As if my teachers’ words were coming home to roost. And far, far away (but not that far–how old do you think I am, anyway?), I hear a teaching assistant intoning in a course on theatre about comedy and tragedy: “Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.” I’ve always felt dissatisfied with this simple equation, but there is a wee bit of substance in it, maybe, with a certain allowance for states of mind that exist somewhere on the borderland between comedy and tragedy. Now, you’re trying to decide whether we write better poetry when we’re happy or when we’re sad, which is not quite the same question. Maybe we should say that INTENSITIES of emotion, whether happy or sad, produce the best poetry? There’s also Wordsworth’s formula about “emotion recollected in tranquility,” which is another way to go with this discussion. Really, I’m guessing, and sort of faking it, because your question is complex enough to keep us all debating for a long time.

    • You’ve definitely touched on something with the “intensity” of emotion – perhaps this is even more significant than the emotion itself. In the discipline of yoga I practice, becoming dispassionate is a focus of the meditative portion of the discipline, which is something I have an issue with. I’ve always believed in being very passionate about everything I do, but I acknowledge that focusing the passion would be constructive. In writing, I feel those passions bubbling just under the surface,and I like the feeling. It’s almost a high for me. In any regard, I’m so happy you came by and commented! 🙂

      • Thank you, I really enjoy your blog. I used to do yoga alone, but I never did it in a class, and I’ve often wondered what I was missing. At first, I got a lot of meditative benefit out of it, but then I gradually became unable to concentrate. I find these days getting enough sleep helps almost as much as yoga used to; but I do miss the physical sense of well-being.

  4. Sheila, I think about this quite a bit! While I do think that a certain amount of life experience is necessary to inform our writing, I’m hoping I don’t have to be in the kind of pain some people believe is appropriate.

    I’m a pretty happy person… although I have had bad heartbreak, sadness, ennui, frustration, schadenfreude, etc. Having emotions and being able to write about them is quite different from the concept that some people embrace: having to constantly remain in pain to “bleed” out our innards onto the page. ; )

    Good post!

    • Thanks Anne! You’re a wise woman and I think it’s good to have these discussions with other writers. It’s easy to isolate oneself and get lost in the work, but thanks to technology as grand as this, we can explore all kinds of issues writers face and discover how others deal with them. Thanks so much for your comments!

  5. Certainly hard knocks help fuel the insights and inspiration behind our writing, but in my opinion, happy experiences can do the same. I’m sure it depends on the person, but for me, I prefer to be in a good place when I write (and I’m speaking figuratively, but a comfortable literal place is important, too 🙂 ). And I enjoyed the fun spite in your poem!

    • I’ve always loved Dorothy Parker and her intense wit and sarcasm in her writing, but she was definitely one burdened by negative emotion and pain. She also referred to writing as something as a torture itself and basically said the worst thing about writing was the writing. I have to say that I love writing – the process, the digging into a place of my consciousness that I don’t fully understand, and even the ‘torture’ when the words don’t come easy. One blogger pointed out the intensity of emotion may be the key, and I think she may be right about that, whether it’s happiness or sadness. Thanks always for your comments and sharing your brilliance with the rest of us 🙂

  6. It’s hard to argue against the idea that angst draws inspiration. But there’s no shortage of angst, so inspiration is never lacking. Even if I am in a happy place, I can and sometimes do draw from the pain I see in others.
    Pain aside, beauty is probably the most write-worthy thing in all the world. Of course, beauty and pain are not so different.

    • Good point in saying that you draw pain you see in others – I do this quite often, too. Sometimes, even if a person is completely quiet, their pain is palpable. Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment 🙂 I appreciate your thoughts!

  7. In my creative writing workshops, I guide participants into writing pieces with happy and proud personal experiences.
    One participant had said to me that it was the first time she writes a poem about a happy experience. She hadn’t realised that it would be possible for her to do so before then.

    • Wow! That’s really amazing. Sometimes we don’t realize our writing is laced with only painful things until we are challenged, as in your example. And isn’t it nice to discover something new about ourselves as writers? Wonderful comment – thanks so much!

    • Absolutely… Our fellow blogger, Legionwriter, hit the nail on the head with that one! Thanks so much for popping in. I always love the way you put the perfect image with your writing 🙂

  8. very interesting sheila. fluff writing is wonderful. occasionally i do that. but we don’t live in a fluff world either. i like working from both sides. you and i have had some discussions as to the one being in anguish which you commented on a piece of mine. my feeling is that it’s harder to write about the anguish as you are going through it. it has to sit inside for some time, and then it helps that life levels off. but in my case, i have that special little emotive changer that comes into play – being bi-polar. that can create some edges for me. it’s different with me because when i write i can sense the shifts that i’m going through while i create them. i just feel them stronger. but i have to watch the darker stuff closer as i can’t stay attached to it for a very long time. shifting here, as to a musician or any other creative person, the feeling that they have to be drunk to write, well, it’s their fear that they can’t do it while being straight. from my perspective, drinking doesn’t help me one least bit. so, that’s an advantage. there ya go sheila, chew on that for a bit…..*L*:)

    • It’s always good to detach from the work for a while, get some perspective and then return to it, especially if it’s somewhat dark. There’s an old saying to “write drunk, edit sober” – it’s funny what you write when you’ve had a bit of the spirits 🙂 but I have the same issue if I write completely exhausted or wake up in the night to write – the next morning the words may read a little different lol Thanks so much for your time and thoughts Don 🙂

  9. I think that to a good writer, one must experience a whole spectrum of emotions, from being “on Cloud Nine”, to the deapths of hell.

    As for me, most of my poems were created when I was in a state of happiness or longing… While two out of three of my English poems were the effect of momentary inspiration – one due to a book I was reading, the other thanks to a friend…

    If you want my opinion – the sentiment in your poem is there the whole time, from beginning to end.

    What does it mean to “Fill the bill” ?

  10. You make a valid point… I think sometimes it is easy to relate to painful situations if you read something that reminds you someone else felt that too… I think it is equally important for people in happy places to write about those feelings… I write from a place of pain because I have had a lot of turmoil in my life over the last couple of years but I love to read poetry that provide concepts for hope… I write a lot about hope in my poetry that things will change and I will feel happier. I don’t think anyone can say what emotionaly place a poet has to be in to express themself.

    • Excellent! I love that you write about hope even though you’ve been in turmoil. In fact, I think sometimes those in turmoil are in the best position to write about such things – and we are all the better for reading their work. Thanks so much for commenting 🙂 You’ve added something special to the discussion…

  11. Great post, Sheila! Food for thought. I guess writing is a bit like the old adage “You know don’t someone until you walk a mile in their shoes.” It may be difficult to express emotion — from pain and sadness to happiness — in writing unless you first feel them. I’m not convinced a writer has to bleed and be in pain to write well, but when it comes to conveying ideas like pain and other emotions that readers tend to prefer (over uninteresting happy thoughts that don’t carry a plot), it helps to experience them and pore them out on paper.

    • Thanks always for your thoughts. You mentioned that it would be difficult to express an emotion that we haven’t yet felt. In keeping with this line of discussion, I wonder, since you’ve traveled so much, what would be your thoughts on writing about the suffering, the impoverished? I’ve lived in a rich spoiled nation all of my life – should any one of us who do even attempt to write of the suffering of humanity? Is it hypocrisy to try? Has your perspective on this subject been altered by your travels? I know that’s a lot to answer, but I am truly curious. When you can, I’d love to know your thoughts.

      • Sheila, this is a great question. I’m sorry I didn’t respond sooner. What I’ve found traveling around the world is that empathy is better than sympathy. It’s always good to point out what needs to be seen by others without painting it in a tragic light. Rather than feeling sorry for others and pouring out your heart and resources that you have, look at the needs of those who are wanting and help them help themselves on their terms. The adage about teaching to fish is true. So many donations driven by rich guilt leads to a dependency complex that isn’t healthy. Rather than merely giving things that may not be needed, strive to learn what those in need truly could benefit from and help them where they are. Empowerment is a better objective than filling an open hand.

      • I really appreciate you taking the time on this. I love your overall idea that empowerment is the better objective. You’ve seen and had a lot of real-life, everyday cultural experiences so many of us have not. It’s great to be able to gain some of your insight. Thanks!

  12. I definitely think coming from a bad place can add a lot to writing, purely because there tends to be a bigger influence of emotion, and often the intensity of it. That said, it depends how you can focus it. Whilst there is this romantic notion of the tortured artist (which surely isn’t romantic for the person themselves, no?), less is said of the person who cannot concentrate or focus because of the emotion.

    On the other hand, e.g. listening to a song can trigger an idea, a thought or feeling, and set something off which wasn’t there minutes earlier. If the right words arrive, then there doesn’t need to be the torture. It might be focused it might not. Sometimes you lead it, or sometimes you let it lead you.

    Anyhoo, interesting poem as always. A little change at the end isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and adds a little twist, or maybe reveals a lot in a seemingly underlying emotion or thought shining through. It doesn’t have to be a cop out, (My one for next week does a similar thing).

    • Elliot – you definitely hit the mark when you said sometimes you lead it and sometimes it leads you. Others have said they need perspective from a feeling before they write about it – it may be too intense at the time they are feeling the emotion and I have found this to be true for myself. I’m glad you liked the poem – As much as I enjoy a lovely sonnet, I truly like adding wit and sarcasm to poetry. I think we should have fun with words sometimes 🙂

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