The Myth of Suffering for Your Art
Updated: May 30, 2020
(A fictional story)
Melanie loved to cook. She was mixing her own recipes ever since she was five years old. As she grew, she experimented with all kinds of cuisines, combining foods that no one would imagine would taste good together. She made special dinners for her family all the time, baked birthday cakes for her friends, made cookies for her grandpa when he was in the hospital, and brought her homemade ice cream to family parties. By the time she was 13, Melanie had a 50-page book full of her own recipes.
Then, something terrible happened. Melanie was taken away from her home and forced to go to a strict boarding school where she was abused. I won't go into the details of the abuse, but horrible things happened at this boarding school, and Melanie had no way to get out.
The main food supply at this school was potatoes. They had some odd spices and herbs, but the basis of every meal was potatoes. Students cooked their own food, and most of them made basic potato dishes - mashed, baked, fried, or oven roasted. But Melanie, being a chef, came up with all kinds of creative dishes with potatoes. She cooked them all different ways, with all different spice combinations that her classmates had never tried before. She even managed to make a whipped potato dish that tasted just like chocolate ice cream, which she had been missing since was taken away from her home.
When Melanie finally graduated from this boarding school, she didn't just return to her normal life. She was severely depressed and had PTSD from the abuse that she suffered at the school. She also no longer remembered how to cook with foods other than potatoes - that 50-page recipe book she left at home all those years ago seemed like a foreign language to her now.
When Melanie continued to cook the potato dishes she had invented at school, lots of people loved them. Her chocolate ice cream mashed potatoes in particular were very popular. She managed to open a potato restaurant and sell these recipes, and her business was very successful, but she never felt happy, fulfilled, and whole again like she did before was sent to the abusive school.
When Melanie tried to talk to people about the abuse that she suffered, about the fact that it was never okay for her to be non-consensually taken away from her family, everyone told her, "But look at all the good that came from it! Your business is so successful! I bet you never would have never come up with all these potato recipes if you hadn't been sent to that school!"
Well, it is true that Melanie probably would not have come up with so many potato-based dishes if she hadn't been in that abusive situation. But that does not justify the abuse. That does not mean that Melanie herself would say that anything that happened to her was worth it just because she can cook potatoes now. No matter how successful her restaurant is, it will always be Melanie's choice - and Melanie's choice alone - how she feels about what she went through, and whether or not she even considers the potato restaurant to be a positive silver lining at all. Melanie may rightly feel that she would have rather not suffered the abuse even if it meant that she would never become a successful chef, and that's valid.
But in addition to that, let's talk about Melanie's life before she was sent away. Because when an artist creates something that was inspired by a horrible situation, we sometimes give credit to the situation more than to the artist - we act as if the situation was somehow acceptable because they were able to create art that they could not have otherwise created if the bad thing hadn't happened. But we're forgetting that Melanie was already a brilliant chef before anything bad happened. She didn't create all those potato dishes because that's just what happens when you get thrown into a situation like that - she created them because she loved to cook. If her success were only the result of her being forced to eat only potatoes, then all of her classmates would also have successful potato restaurants. But they don't.
When an artist creates something wonderful out of something bad, we often act as if they would have created nothing at all if the bad thing had never happened. But really, it's not a choice between Melanie's mashed potatoes and nothing - it's a choice between potatoes or all the other foods in the world! It's a choice between potatoes and the 100 more recipes that she may have added to her cookbook, had she not been taken away.
When something horrible happens, it can be all-consuming. It can fill your brain to capacity to the point that you can't think about anything else, you can't create art about anything else even if you wanted to. It's like your entire house is filled to capacity with potatoes, to the point that you can't physically leave to go get any other food, so you have to eat a lot of potatoes just to be able to get out.
When an artist makes something brilliant as a result of something bad, don't think for a second that that makes the bad thing okay, or that we feel like the bad thing was worth going through, or that we otherwise would not have anything to make art about. Don't think that it was fully our choice to make art about the bad thing, because trauma can be all-consuming and doesn't always leave room in your brain for anything else. If traumatic things hadn't happened, we'd be making art about the gazillions of other things that we wanted to make art about, and that art may have been even better. And even if the art wasn't better, we would be.