[The blog is on vacation this week. Here’s a favorite post from 2009. Back soon!]
What happens to us as artists when our personal lives crash and burn? When we’ve lost our spouses or our homes or our minds; when we’ve been betrayed or, worse, betrayed someone else; when it’s three in the morning and sunrise feels like it’s never going to come?
Here’s my experience: some of my best work has been done when my personal life was in chaos.
This seems to make no sense. How can we do good work when it’s all we can do to keep from checking into Bellevue? But we can. Weird as it seems, internal catastrophe never hurt an artist or an entrepreneur.
The Muse, it seems, is a hardcore kinda gal.
The painter paints and the writer writes from a place that is safely below that of the merely personal. Where do ideas come from? How do breakthroughs manifest themselves? This stuff is percolating at a level way beneath heartbreak, illness, deaths of loved ones, addiction, jail terms, being waterboarded. Even our crimes against others and ourselves are absolved on the level where creativity takes place.
The Muse, if she’ll forgive me, is kind of like a mailman. She makes her rounds every day, cruising past our offices and studios and peeking in the window. Are we there at our easels? The Muse likes that. She likes to see us taking care of business. And if we’re there with our hearts breaking or tears streaming down our cheeks, all the better. The Muse says to herself, “This poor bastard is true to me; I’m gonna give him something in return for his loyalty.”
And into our heads pops the solution to Act Two, the bridge to that song we couldn’t lick, the breakthrough concept for our new philanthropic venture.
I’m not saying pain is good. I’m not advocating screwing up our lives for the sake of art. I’m just making the observation that our genius is not us. It can’t be hurt like we can. Its heart can’t be broken. It’s going to send the next trolley down the track whether we like it or not.
In a way it’s kind of scary–the relentless, impersonal, almost monstrous nature of creativity and inspiration.
The good news is this: no matter how much pain we’re in, no matter how badly we’ve screwed up our lives, no matter what felonies we’ve committed, we can still find refuge in our work. Like the athlete who makes the decision to suit up, even though his father or his best friend has just died, we can have the game of our lives in the midst of excruciating personal agony.