A while back, I had an exchange with a comedy writer, who disagreed with my contention that writing comes from pain. I didn’t exactly put it like that, but in response to his question, that dreaded one all writers have to face – “Why do you write?”, I said that I write when I am miserable, because I am miserable. Mind you, this was a highly subjective answer, representative of only an individual state of mind, and not of my attitude to writing as a whole. But, it hurt to be dismissed so decidedly.
But, if it’s okay for greats like Joni Mitchell, Amy Winehouse, Woman of the World Adele, my infrequent dream guest Robert Smith, I think I might be allowed to believe it. You might say, none of these people are real writers, I must turn to the greats to seek answers. Yes, but instead of turning to Aristotle or even Shakespeare, I choose contemporary greats because what they do is what resonates with the majority of the world today, with people who may not be all that fussed with a piece of high art in literature or painting, but can’t help empathising with Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black”. The thing is, art has a real and rooted relationship with pain. To paraphrase Robert Smith, you don’t make art when you are happy, because you are too busy being happy.
This is very different from confessional writing. I have written about the difference between truth and honesty in writing before, but the key idea is, you don’t need to make art about your misery directly when you are being miserable. Mind you, I am stripping the word “art” of all its grandiose connotations for the purpose of this essay, and of my career. To me, art is the individual effort to make something that might say something about you, but definitely attempts to speak some truth about humanity. I am an essayist, for Cher’s sake, and I call it making art.
This may be very culturally distinct, but I feel there are many artists who prefer to be in denial when it comes to pain. Mind you, I don’t enjoy it either, but I can’t deny it when it’s there. I have tried denial on occasion, but it usually turns into overcompensation. Say, you’ve hurt your foot. You have it all plastered up, you’re taking all your meds, but you choose to forget about it by watching your favourite TV show. And you just might, for the next 7 or 8 hours even, but that pain will come back to you once it’s over. Or add other pains to it, like eye strain, headaches, body cramps from sitting in the same position for too long etc.
And even if it isn’t a one-off like this, I’d ask you to keep a pain diary for a day, noting everytime you felt it, whatever for and in whichever manner. And, if you keep at that diary for a week, month, year, you might even have enough material for your art. I am a long-time diarist, and I’ve noticed on pain-moderation days, I’m particularly introspective. Pain-light and pain-heavy days, I hardly jot down a couple of lines, if at all. That’s why misery, i.e. pain-moderation, just breeds writing. You’re in just enough pain to contemplate anything, anything at all. And just strong enough to put it all down on computer, or chisel, or dance routine. I’d make a gross assumption and say, pain-moderation is the most frequent state of being, which is why it is possible to empathise with Adele no matter how many times “Hello” comes up in the atmosphere.
I’ve been rather facetious in writing this essay so far. I’d tried writing it in other moods, especially after watching the documentary on Amy Winehouse, Amy (2015), which I found deeply moving. I feel we, as a culture, have grossly behaved towards her life and music. I wasn’t even as aware of her music when it was contemporary, but all too annoyingly aware of whatever the media chose to highlight on any given day. I’d have preferred to listen to her more on a music programme than a news one (we got a very filtered-down, or perhaps, high-priority side to her celebrity here in India), because then it would have prevented me from unconsciously clubbing her with any other modern celebrity famous for something like stepping out of a club at 2 a.m. with a pumpkin on their head.
More than talking about our pain when making art, I really want to stress on our attitudes towards artists who make art out of their suffering, or are in suffering. Somewhere in our empathy (for their art would not have hit a note with us otherwise), we also feel obligated towards extreme forms of judgement and emotional voyeurism. There are many artists who write specifically of their pain not only to exorcise themselves of it, but because it encourages that public voyeurism, which in turn raises enough interest in media promotion. The media is the fish here as is the public, taking bait because something sensational comes readily on a plate. But, Amy Winehouse didn’t need any of that. There was already too much talent, too much emotional authenticity, to require cheap publicity. She is in a long line of people who may have tasted recognition and success, but weren’t rid of their propensity to derive emotional authenticity in their work through their life.
Just because I choose to make something when I am miserable, it doesn’t make my misery a commodity. That piece of art is a commodity, not my emotions. And it won’t even matter if it didn’t render true with some people, at least. And that is it, really. Truth. For which you have to include the entire range of human emotions, not the enterprisingly positive, pain-denial one that my comedy writer friend chose to emphasise. I don’t even like comedy that’s too happy. There have been studies , both scientific and humanist, that link comedy to the darker side of the emotional spectrum. And rightly so, for why would comedy be interesting, let alone funny, if it didn’t come from the things that we find painful? The key word is “we”, not the specific pain that the comedian faces, and what judgement we pass on him on the basis of it. To paraphrase that old great Shakespeare, all art holds up a mirror to nature. And nature, us, isn’t altogether pretty. I’d like to believe it is beautiful none the less, but it wouldn’t be if it wasn’t so riddled with interesting cracks and ridges. That’s where the art is. In those cracks and ridges. In that pain.
Do you make art from your pain?