On Suffering and Creativity

In February 2009, Elizabeth Gilbert, famed author of the international bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, gave a TED talk entitled “Your elusive creative genius.” I remember watching it shortly after it came out and scratching my head; I simply couldn’t understand what she was getting at. Suffering was “odious” as a means by which to achieve artistic insight? She went on to quote Norman Mailer, a writer whom I greatly respect, and question his now-famous quote: “Every one of my books…killed me a little more.”

I’ve wanted to address this TED talk for a while, but only recently found the impetus to put (computer) pen to (computer) paper after watching her second TED talk, “Success, failure and the drive to keep creating.” Even those who are not writers or artists can surely think of countless times when tragedy served as the flavour of the day, hardship the currency by which they bartered with between and among loved ones. It’s precisely those times which define us as individuals, illuminate for everyone all around what we’re made of, and strengthen our ability to adapt to this gong show called life.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but there is no doubt in my mind that pain, suffering and the universal human condition have been pillars of creative genius for time immemorial. Rejection, loss, hurt, sickness — they’ve all contributed to people’s creativity over the ages. I think of writers like Fyodor Dostoyevsky scrambling to write The Gambler and pay off his debts before going bankrupt and forfeiting his entire literary earnings for nine years; of Murakami Haruki going into self-imposed exile to deal with his newfound fame (from Norwegian Wood) and writing The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, a book which he later claimed had taken every ounce of strength he had and very nearly broke him; of David Mitchell having his first novel rejected across the board by agents and bouncing back to write Ghostwritten; of Sylvia Plath writing one of the most seminal works of fiction on mental illness while suffering from a crippling case of the very same disease; and of a 25-year-old Norman Mailer returning to the U.S. after WW II, the horrors he witnessed in the Pacific Campaign still fresh in his mind, only to go on to publish The Naked and the Dead three years later.

As those writers I’ve just mentioned show, suffering (in any of its varied forms) can, but does not necessarily, open the door to achieve greatness in a creative manner. Ultimately, however, the burden falls on us as individuals to seize upon these painful moments of our lives and to draw something from them other than misery.

So why the picture of Raphael’s cherubs staring at the Sistine Madonna at the top of this post, you might ask? For me, something about the artwork captures the essence of eternal hope. It also makes me think of one of my favourite quotes from the Bible, John 1:5, and something I think about a lot when in the doldrums of my own suffering: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

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