There’s no doubt that this point in history is frightening.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has eliminated every normal aspect of modern life: the comfort of lingering in coffee shops, the hustle and bustle of busy shopping malls, or even the act of hosting a small dinner party among friends.
Combined with the constant flood of negative news stories, this situation has undoubtedly shaken us all.
Crises aren’t fun; they come with unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety, and danger.
But if you’re a writer, you might have noticed a tricky paradox: that your best work often comes out of the most difficult experiences of your life.
Let’s dig into that concept a bit more.
[Content Notice: the rest of this article mentions experiences of trauma, mental illness, and hospitalization. Please only continue reading if you feel that it’s safe for you to do so.]
The Myth of the Tortured Artist
It’s a common stereotype that, especially for poets, you need to experience extreme hardship to create great art.
This is a dangerous belief: it implies that artists can’t find inspiration from joy or happiness. And it often justifies self-destructive behavior (i.e. alcoholism) as the price of being a creative genius.
I’ve always struggled with this myth of the tortured artist because, on one hand, I recognize that creativity doesn’t require pain.
On the other hand, I recognize that some of my best poetry has been written during mental health crises.
My Personal Experience
For example, my experiences of being hospitalized on psychiatric wards informed much of my first chapbook. My chronic depression and suicidality were some of the foremost themes of that collection.
I’ve always considered writing as an act of survival. I truly believe that I would have committed suicide many years ago if I’d never begun writing creatively.
Long before I was able to accept help for my mental illness, I supplemented treatment with the act of writing poetry. Writing was — first and foremost — a way for me to process trauma that I was experiencing in real-time.
It allowed me to take my overwhelming emotional experiences and not only record them, but transform them into words with meaning.
After all, writing confessional poetry doesn’t just mean dumping all of your unfiltered thoughts onto the page (although some writers may choose to adopt that via a stream-of-consciousness style).
To me, great confessional poetry involves taking something that feels overwhelming (like depression) and reflecting upon it.
After that point of reflection, the writer uses every tool at their disposal (like literary devices) to re-shape that experience into art. Similar to the act of meditation, writing involves finding distance between you and your thoughts. And that is a powerful process.
And the reality is that many of the greatest writers of all time grappled with severe mental health issues; Dickinson, Plath, and Bukowski (just to name a few) have conveyed their emotional pain in their work.
So, while not a hard-and-fast rule, the myth of the tortured artist holds some truth. While pain isn’t a necessary component of good writing, it has often been a source of inspiration for artists throughout history.
How can we apply this concept to the current crisis?
I mention all of this because I believe that this point in history holds unique potential.
No, it’s not good that tens of thousands of people have died of COVID-19 (and many more have become seriously ill). There is no justification for the global experience of suffering right now — it’s horrible and unthinkable.
But what we can learn from history is that times of crisis often lead to immense creative output.
It doesn’t make the current situation any better or worthwhile, but perhaps it can motivate us to reflect on our experiences and comment on them through art.
The reality is that, for many of us (who are fortunate enough to not be on the front lines), we’ll be confined to our homes for an undetermined number of weeks or even months.
So while we’re stuck indoors, perhaps we can use this time to create. Because what’s the alternative?
Yes, working from home can help us feel productive; FaceTiming our friends can help us feel connected to those we love; cleaning our homes can help us feel organized. But what will we do to fill that aching void — an emptiness that threatens to consume us?
If you’re a writer, the keyboard has never looked better.
A Note on Writing Advice
It definitely feels strange to write my usual Writing Advice articles during this time of global crisis. As such, my blog posts will likely have heavier themes than usual.
I hope that you still find them useful, and please hit the Follow button if you’d like to be notified of future posts.
Thank you, as always, for reading the blog, and I hope that you & your loved ones are staying safe during this time.
If you’re experiencing mental health struggles, there are many resources available. For example, if you’re in Canada, you can consult this link for a comprehensive overview of crisis lines and information. International readers can also visit the Suicide Stop website for a list of global helplines.
However, this article is not meant to be used, nor should it be used, to diagnose or treat any medical condition. For diagnosis or treatment of any medical problem, consult your own physician.