But you probably will, anyway.
Last week, I performed stand up in a local comedy showcase where every performer received personal feedback on their set from a group of four judges. As I stood on the small stage of the dimly lit Chicago bar, one of the judges remarked, “You know, your point of view is kind of generic.”
I mulled the critique over as I walked home. It rankled me, primarily because it aligned with concerns I already had about my work: namely, that I was at a point in my life where maybe I was too happy, too settled to produce anything truly funny.
“Maybe,” I worried to myself as I walked, “I’m too well-adjusted to do comedy anymore.”
In hindsight, this sounds patently ridiculous. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a raving lunatic. But the myth of the “troubled artist” or “starving artist” or “mentally unstable genius” is a pervasive one?—?and a dangerous one at that.
The creative landscape is marred with geniuses that have lost. Stephen Colbert lost his father and two older brothers in a plane crash at age 10. Van Gogh lost his ear in a fit of tortured insanity. Sylvia Plath lost her life after a battle with what is suspected to have been manic depression.
The problem arises when we reduce these artists to the sum of their suffering. Stephen Colbert is not only successful because he lost loved ones. Van Gogh’s work would have been just as effective if his ears had remained intact. What more might Sylvia Plath have accomplished if her life had not been so mentally and emotionally fraught?
Most of my friends work in the creative arts and I can usually pinpoint the ones who believe they have to be unhappy in order to create. They’re the ones who self-sabotage by staying in miserable relationships. They prefer to work hung over and seem happiest when they’ve just made an enemy or feel that someone is out to get them. I worry about these friends. And I worry about the part of myself that secretly thinks they might have the right idea.
The young adult author John Green recently published a post on Medium detailing three depressive periods in his life. In his most recent battle with mental illness, Green says he purposely stopped taking his medication in the hopes of writing a new book. This, he explains, didn’t work. He adds that his best work is created when he is “treating [his] chronic health problem with consistency and care.”
There’s clear-cut, scientific research to back this up. In 2015, Kathryn Graddy, a professor of economics at Brandeis University, published a paper called “Death, Bereavement and Creativity.” Graddy studied painters who lost close friends and family and discovered that the works they created in the year following their loss tended to sell for less money and were less likely to appear in art collections.
In other words, being unhappy does not guarantee artistic achievement.
Anyone who has ever performed or written or painted or created anything knows that sharing a piece of your soul with the world leaves you vulnerable. And when you’re vulnerable, you will get hurt. You will face rejection and adversity and have your heart torn open again and again. And this pain will lead to more art, which in turn will cause more pain. If you’re an artist, you don’t need to seek out opportunities for misery: keep creating and misery will find you of its own accord.
As I reached my front door, I made the conscious decision to mentally rebrand “generic” as “relatable.” Then I went inside and wrote the best joke I’ve written in many months.