Live Through This

The Art of Happiness

Why do we think being miserable is the only way to produce great work?

Illustration by Caitlin

Illustration by Caitlin.

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. ♦

23 Comments

  • rabbitwink September 9th, 2013 3:49 PM

    Never fool yourself that angst is in any way helpful or necessary for creativity, especially if you are a performer. I say this from many years experience.

    Anger, depression, poverty, fear, substance abuse, coping with unresolved issues- none of this is in any way healthy or productive. It saps your energy, occupies your mind, and inhibits clear and creative problem solving. It grinds you down, dulls your powers of observation and listening. You don’t have enough distance to analyze things when you’re in the thick of misery.

    You make better work when you are fed, contented, and able to make your ideas come to life (those ideas may include anger, sadness and so forth, but your objective distance allows you to render them more clearly).

    “Art” is the root also found in “artificial”, “artifice”. It is a creation, a reflection, not the thing itself. Art & creativity are a product to lead others (audience) through reflection and catharsis, not a personal therapy session. I mean, it can be, but don’t ask people to shell out $ for it.

    If you can’t perform your sad song or play your part without being sad, you’re not a very good performer yet. The reason professional artists train so long & so hard is to allow you to perform that role or song over and over regardless of your emotional state. Are you just going to not perform if you feel good that day? Or how will you perform that giddy or upbeat role if you’re having a bad day? Skills, not raw emotional state.

    Even the non-performative arts benefit from discipline and wellness.

    Don’t fool, yourself- suffering is overrated!

    • Ladymia69 September 9th, 2013 6:35 PM

      What if you’re not putting yourself in those circumstances voluntarily? What if those things inhabit your daily life (poverty, depression, etc.) without your wanting them to?

      A better article would be how to make art DESPITE the shitty stuff that is happening to you. I think a lot of young people could use that advice.

      • rabbitwink September 10th, 2013 3:36 AM

        Of course sometimes you can’t avoid those things, and that is a separate issue, but given the focus of this article, the message is don’t think that you must stay in these circumstances to be considered “legit”.

        From the outside, the image of the starving, mad artist is exotic and dramatic, but believe me- after a few years no real artist wants that or can endure that. Conversely, the way we treat artists and the difficulty of supporting ourselves in this culture is a huge part of what in fact creates the sorrow and suffering. When you’re young you often do have the energy and drive to endure the apartments with seven roommates, working every single day, making do with next to nothing, and the crushing daily rejection. Writing endless grant applications that go nowhere, working for free in exchange for “exposure”, it wears on you.

        Even in the distant past people relied on patrons- the church, the court, wealthy families, and if you didn’t do something that fit the bill, well, tough. If you’re really moved to do something, you do it the best you can, to the extent you can fight your limitations, and then, well, that’s another story.

  • Maryse89 September 9th, 2013 4:34 PM

    this is such a great and important article, really truly

    when I was in high school in creative writing classes I always felt I had nothing worthwhile to write about because I had lived a mostly happy life, had a really nice family, and no childhood trauma

    it’s too bad that the misery of artists is so glamorized that well-adjusted, relatively happy artistic heroes require a lot more digging to find

  • Marian September 9th, 2013 4:40 PM

    Thank you so much for this article!!! I really needed it. I was intensely happy a few days ago and I remember thinking “I can’t keep this up. If I’m not thinking about everything that makes me unhappy my writing will suffer.” Thank you for reminding me that that’s totally untrue.

    http://thelunalovingbookworm.tumblr.com/

    • opheliafae September 12th, 2013 2:38 AM

      I used to think that too, Marian. That my writing would suffer if I was happy and that I could only create tragic pieces. Those were the only ones worth keeping. So not true! Great writing happens when we do the work, when we show up at the page, despite the emotions.

  • Alicec September 9th, 2013 4:51 PM

    This article fantastically explains how I felt during my teenage years and I finally come to the same conclusion that you can be both happy and creative! Thank you for putting into words what I could never properly explain!

  • spudzine September 9th, 2013 6:08 PM

    THANK YOU FOR SAYING THIS. I’ve always witnessed the whole “sad artists make better art” thing, but I’ve never really questioned it OUT LOUD. However, you’ve done it! I’ve been sad for a long time, but during that slow time, I was scared of being happy for multiple reasons. One of them because being happy made me question if I would have just as much fun with art as I would than if I were sad. And the thing is, is that happiness can produce many great art works! Being happy is a key to being healthy, and you can be both while still producing art you love.

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com/
    http://emotwins.tumblr.com/
    http://rockogirl.tumblr.com/

  • Sophie ❤ September 9th, 2013 6:27 PM

    I adore the video- it’s the best!

    http://theneonpapaya.com

  • rachaelreviewsall September 9th, 2013 6:38 PM

    I was a miserable teenager and did the whole teen-angst too. And then somehow last year I had a series of revelations which kinda made me think “I can be happy, I’m making myself miserable”. In regards to the pain of my teenage-hood, I usually convince myself that the suffering I put myself through does make some parts of my writing better, but looking back on my dreary, dark writings of the past, and comparing it to my current, more fun work with serious parts, I really think everything has turned out for the best.

    I really wish I had this article 5 years ago, and thank you for taking away some of the glamour we’ve found in misery.

    http://rachaelreviewsall.blogspot.com/

  • marisa7 September 9th, 2013 11:13 PM

    The line…

    “It means that daily stressors don’t destroy me, and daily victories don’t make me an egotistical monster.”

    … really stuck out to me! Well said.

  • alesssurprise September 9th, 2013 11:30 PM

    Thank you very much for this.
    I love this section of Rookie. Reading other people’s experiences and being able to learn something from them is fantastic.

  • OLiveYouToo September 10th, 2013 2:44 AM

    Just tonight, I took a chance and watched a movie on a whim and it turned out to be incredibly silent and depressing and full of weird tension and symbols and left me feeling off. And then I started chatting with my friend and remained curled up in a tiny ball on the couch in the darkest of corners the whole time, after the movie, and the conversation wound back around to me criticizing myself and self-sabotaging, and I ended up in general negativity, and then felt bad for ruining the vibe of our evening, and then I drove home in the dark by myself and generally listened to angsty and wistful dark music and tried to figure out why I constantly taint my experiences with a negativity and felt ANGRY at it and FRUSTRATED with myself and by the time I finally got home I was at the bottom of a hatred-time-wasted-self-anger spiral that was not healthy one little bit. And feeling utterly alone. And as soon as I went onto my computer to do a bit of reading, this was here. It was utterly perfect, and exactly what I needed to read, any time, any day, but especially tonight, of all nights. Timing, impeccable timing, and a beautiful piece which makes absolute sense. I’m noting it ALL to self. Thanks again.

  • InSmithereens September 10th, 2013 8:00 AM

    “The Sylvia Plath story
    Is told to girls who write
    They want us to think
    That to be a girl poet
    Means you have to die

    Who is it that told me all the girls who write must suicide?

    I’ve another good one for you
    We are turning cursive letters into knives”

    • InSmithereens September 10th, 2013 5:57 PM

      Right now, being creative (i.e. writing) is at odds with my mental health… If I let go and write I go off the deep end. So I’m taking a break. I’m 21, I do not *need* to be a tortured artist more than I need to be mentally safe and healthy. It’s kind of freeing really. When you aren’t looking for deep meanings and poetic descriptions you can just accept life and the beauty and absurdity of the world as it is, rather than fighting to be as creative and out there as possible.

      It sucks… I still aspire to be a writer, but right now I can’t do that without harming myself.

      • Danielle September 10th, 2013 6:08 PM

        It’s a good idea to step back and take care of yourself, for sure, and you have a really great outlook about this. Take care!

  • pygmypuffs September 10th, 2013 10:54 PM

    This reminded me of a poem by Neil Hilborn called Audiobook. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRPmKZ4Bz1Y

  • rabbitwink September 11th, 2013 2:18 AM

    There’s a great article/interview featuring Claire Danes in last week’s New Yorker magazine where she discusses how important balance and health are to her life.

  • MaddyGrace September 11th, 2013 3:46 AM

    I love how Tavi has spoken a lot about how she finally felt like she was a ‘tortured artist’ once she received her depression diagnosis because I think a lot of what she has to say is true. Great art can definitely come out of really dark periods but it’s very hard to create that art whilst you’re still in it. Interesting piece.

    http://www.maddygraces.blogspot.com

  • diana5b September 11th, 2013 12:26 PM

    What about inspiration? what if you can only get inspiration from misery? what can you do if happinnes doesn’t inspire you as misery does? please help :(

    • opheliafae September 12th, 2013 2:47 AM

      I’ve been there. For the longest time I couldn’t (or at least I didn’t think I could) write anything that manifested from a happy place. I thought, well, I have to be sad if I want to get any writing done, and I think I subconsciously manipulated myself into situations that caused pain just so I could “be inspired.” But like I said above, this is just something we tell ourselves. We just tell ourselves we can’t be inspired from happiness and don’t create as a result.

      Of course there’s nothing wrong with putting elements of tragedy and whatnot into your work (there’s beauty in tragedy too), but if you put up boundaries around what inspires you, you might miss out on something remarkable.

      http://www.ex-grrl.blogspot.com

  • Doering October 7th, 2013 11:15 PM

    Absolutely brilliant

  • daniellethewanderer October 26th, 2013 7:54 PM

    RELEVANT. Especially when you brought up that after a while, all your negative writings begin to sound repetitive. It’s high time that I realized that my writing does not have to revolve around sadness ,or any type of negativity for that matter. Creativity can come along with happiness.