I will never forget the day I saw the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” video for the first time when I was a teenager. For those of you too young to have seen it the first time around, and to refresh the rest of your memories, let’s take a look:
This video blew my mind, and not in a “Girl power, yay!” kind of way. I sat in my friend’s kitchen in my alterna-kid uniform (old-man pants held up with Halloween suspenders, hair streak pink and black), staring at the TV, dumbfounded. How could these women expect to be taken seriously, with their cheesy comedy bits, manic dancing, and dumb lyrics? Was this a parody video by Bikini Kill I’d somehow missed? Nope, it was real, and horrifying.
See, when I was a teenager, everything I chose to absorb screamed Joy is boring! To be an artist, one must suffer! I don’t know where this idea came from—I was a pretty normal, silly kid, but I grew absurdly fast and was soon taller than other kids. My classmates made comments about my looks, and for the first time in my life I felt like an outsider. Feeling like I was ostracized was hard for me, but I balled up all of my negative emotions instead of expressing them. I was already watching black comedies and horror movies exclusively, reading Kurt Vonnegut and Poppy Z. Brite, and listening to Tom Waits and the Cure, but my misery gave them greater depth to me. These guys have life figured out, I thought. They understand that everything is terrible, and they’re making the somber best of it. Thanks to the horror books I read and the influence of the diary-keeping Veronica Sawyer in Heathers, I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. I just knew that I had a lot of pent-up emotions that felt beautiful and ugly and interesting and scary, and the only way I had to get those emotions out of me was to put pen to paper and let all of the messy and complicated feelings pour out.
For years, I bathed in the teen angst. I had relationships that were equal parts romance and melodrama, wore artfully ripped-up clothing, seethed that no one understood me, and locked myself in my room to paint over glossy, gorgeous magazine spreads with nail polish. I was basically Enid Coleslaw in Ghost World before Ghost World existed. I felt noble. I wrote about the pain of not being understood and about the ridiculousness of conformity. I maintained a petri dish of misery that I thought would foster my creativity (which I guess made my creativity some kind of disease).
So of course I rolled my eyes and sneered when I saw the Spice Girls dancing around in cute, colorful clothes, singing a fluffy song about the importance of friendship. That wasn’t art, I thought. These women weren’t artists, they were sellouts. But another, quieter voice piped up inside me. The Spice Girls looked like they were having fun. They were making a living being silly and cute on the same channel where I watched the alternative-rock showcase 120 Minutes. Was that…OK? If it was, did that mean I was going about all wrong? If I had tuned in to that little voice, I’d have had to admit that I was actually a bit jealous of the Spice Girls and was just looking for reasons to dismiss them. I didn’t want to do that, so I smothered that feeling with righteous indignation. But a seed had been planted.
That seed started to sprout when I was in college. By then I had been doing teen angst for so long that it started to get boring, and I was meeting all kinds of people who challenged my idea of what an artist could be—like the person who sewed bizarro outfits while listening to Frank Zappa, people with a million piercings who were in comedy troupes, and people who went to the gym religiously but also made horror movies. These people showed me that you can be weird and creative AND happy and healthy, which is what that little voice had been trying to tell me back in high school.
I started to write about more than just my pain, and writing went from being just an outlet for emotional anguish to something that could express all kinds of feelings. It could be relaxing, energetic, even fun. That led me to try out other mediums to see if they were fun, too, and I discovered that I writing comedy sketches can be as subversive as the darkest of goth poetry, that baking cookies can be an expression of joy, and that dyeing my hair different colors makes little kids laugh. It turns out I like making little kids laugh!
When I wrote only about my personal agonies, I ended up repeating myself, since that well only goes so deep. When I started contemplating the breadth of my emotional experiences as fodder for my work, my work got not only better, but way more exciting and satisfying to make. I still write about negative experiences, but I don’t languish in the angst—I prefer to focus on the messages those experiences have sent me, and how I can use them to figure out myself and my life out a little bit. That’s more interesting to me than endlessly plumbing the depths of the dark parts of my feelings, and it turns out to be more interesting to readers, too. This change is what finally made me feel like an actual writer.
I used to think that I needed to be serious and mysterious in order to be considered a real artist, but I eventually realized that I make more of an impression when I’m being my usual goofy, dad joke, bad pun, talking about animals self. It seems like everyone glorifies how miserable, depressed, and anxious they are, which was especially true when I lived in New York, so I thought it was way more punk rock to be my cheerful self amidst everyone else’s emotional carnage. I made a conscious decision to be upbeat because I felt good about my life and work, and didn’t want to hide that just to fit in. I actually get MORE work now because people know I’m fun to work with, and that I’ll always bring a good attitude to everything I do.
Not every creative person believes that you must suffer in order to be a true artist, and maybe you’ve already figured this all out—if so, congratulations, you’re way ahead of the game! But a lot of us, especially when we’re teenagers, get the message that all great artists are miserable, and all great art is born of misery. Misery can be a cathartic, helpful, and even necessary place for you to visit for a while—it’s just dangerous to relocate there permanently. Pain isn’t inherently noble—it’s just pain. Many tortured artists use art to release themselves from the torture, not to glorify it. But just as many artists create from a place of exploration, joy, sexual tension, acceptance, awe or any of an infinite number of every other emotions. You’re not wrong for having negative feelings; I just wish that someone had told me that they’re not a requirement for being an artist.
These days, I strive to be emotionally centered, which for me means being able to feel a huge variety of emotions without feeling like those emotions are controlling me. It means that daily stressors don’t destroy me, and daily victories don’t make me an egotistical monster. Feeling like we can handle our emotions should be a goal all of us to aspire to, including the Enid Coleslaws and the Spice Girls among us. It isn’t shallow or uncool to have a range of emotions; our feelings are a huge part of our creative toolbox, and the more of them we have on hand, the better (and more fun!) our work will be. ♦