Prior to my winter travels, I surfed out a fairly pitiful period of isolated, suburban existence. (Boo-hoo. See this entry.) I’ve thought a lot, then, about misery and creativity: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Are the two mutually exclusive, or do they actually feed one another?
Years ago, my writer-philosopher friend was at once lost and found when he fell in love with his wife-to-be. “But if I’m happy,” he reasoned, “what will I have to write about?” The two are still married, and my friend is a banker. Did true, utterly fulfilled love kill his creativity?
David Lynch seems to accept no excuses for losing touch with the creative force, countering that, “If you’re an artist, you’ve got to know about anger without being restricted by it.”
I was considering all of this when, amid the tiny English language section in a bookshop in Aarhus, Denmark, I found an early holiday gift for my husband: a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History. Franzen is the type of writer whose work induces squawks of, “Oh my God, you have to hear this!” followed by an enthused reading of this passage or that. On the train to Viborg, my husband shared a tidbit about Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip:
“Schulz wasn’t an artist because he suffered. He suffered because he was an artist. To keep choosing art over the comforts of a normal life—to grind out a strip a day every day for fifty years; to pay the very steep psychic price for this—is the opposite of damaged. It’s the sort of choice only a tower of sanity and strength can make.
…This is not to say that the depressive and failure-ridden Charlie Brown, the selfish and sadistic Lucy, and the oddball Linus … aren’t all avatars of Schulz. But his true alter ego is clearly Snoopy, whose freedom is founded on the confidence that he’s lovable at heart…””
Franzen is very clear that Schulz is not so much a “product of his psychic wounds” as he is simply “gifted” and full of insight about humanity which he felt a compulsion to share.
The point seems to be that we creative types can and often do stir up our own emotional troubles. After all, we’re called to explore discomfort and uncertainty as a function of our respective professions. Such states of mind are an essential (if difficult) part of the human emotional landscape.
I don’t mean to say, fellow artistes, that we actually imagine our troubles. If there’s one thing that irritates me, it’s those people who tell you to think about rainbows and butterflies to eliminate your woes. My very point is that as artists and thinkers (a bold and brave bunch, in my unbiased opinion) we confront and explore our dissatisfaction on purpose.
The trick (and here’s where Franzen offers Schulz as a prime example) is to always maintain mastery over those dark feelings, keeping just enough perspective so that you can put your problems in their place. No wallowing allowed. Yes, Franzen says, Schulz had a warped childhood. But he also knew how to rise above it.
And don’t we all want to rise above it? I know I do. As a writer and a human, I’m learning to be deeply grateful for the hard times (and the sunny ones, too) that motivate me to create.
The New Year is going to be better—I can just feel it. And if it’s not, it’ll make a hell of a story.