Voice Card  -  Volume 15  -  John Card Number 20  -  Sun, Jul 29, 1990 03:02 AM

This is a response to Vol 15 Suzanne 7 ("More on Suffering")...

Suzanne has come up with the best sentence in this whole artist-must-suffer debate:

"Most people fight to keep their fears and anxieties tucked away into subconsciousness, but artists struggle to confront them, to peel away layers of their psyches in order to better understand themselves and the human condition, and this process is necessarily a painful one."

That the artist must suffer is true in several different senses, but this statement goes to the heart of the matter. The struggle Suzanne talks about is what I was trying to get at in my various definitions of suffering.

I must say, in talking about this with people in and out of Archipelago, I am surprised by the emotional responses I get, especially from non-artists. I thought this would be perceived as a relatively dry philosophical issue of little interest to the average Joe. But within seconds many of the average Joe's I've talked to are jumping up and down shouting "The artist does NOT suffer! The artist does NOT suffer!" Why is this?

Other writers I've talked to are used to the idea of painful self examination and struggle as a part of the process of creation. They routinely talk about "opening a vein" or "waiting for drops of blood to appear on their foreheads" or "learning to walk naked down the street." This may sound self-indulgent or melodramatic to outsiders, but to the writers who use them, these phrases are colorful ways of referring to a normal, familiar process.

Most of the non-artists I've talked to seem to have a lot invested in the idea that creativity is a magical "gift," a god-given talent bestowed on a chosen few. They delight in pointing out child prodigies like Mozart. "I practiced for ten years and still couldn't play very well; for Mozart it was child's play." I ran into this attitude frequently when teaching composition. The students would complain "Why are you trying to get me to write like these famous authors? I just don't have the talent!"

But those of us who have given it a real shot know that the work of an artist is maybe 10% talent and 90% drive, desperation, hard work, stubborness, egotism, and courage. If you can find early works by great writers, the stuff they wrote before they sprang into the public eye, you will usually find that it's not that good. Great writers start out as lousy writers, and get better by practicing.

It's not a matter of learning grammar or spelling. It's a matter of learning to tell the truth, of figuring out what you really mean and then saying what you mean. And then going over it again and again and again and again, often with a clothespin over your nose because you know better than anyone just how bad it REALLY smells, all of this at great personal cost even though most of the time no one will ever read your stuff let alone be moved by it.

Many writers, and performers in general, go to great efforts to "make it look easy." The final product is much more impressive if you present it with a casual flourish, and besides, no one wants to hear you whine about how many rough drafts you went through. But a great work of art is never easy, never casual.

Maybe all of this is just impossible to understand if you're not infected by the "disease" (as most writers call it). And yet, there's a little bit of artist in each of us; it shouldn't be too hard to grasp this simple truth.

Artists are not better than other people, they don't suffer more than other people, they must laugh as well as cry, they can be as happy on balance as the next guy, suffering doesn't mean living in a garret and committing suicide, not everyone who suffers will become an artist, a painting or story does not have to portray suffering in order to be art, but still: THE ARTIST MUST SUFFER.