by Britton Gildersleeve
Aspiring poets often believe that it takes unhappiness to create art. You must drink too much, do drugs, have a sadly aching life. Be as miserable and crazy as Poe, as suicidal as Hemingway, as dysfunctional as Sexton. Sometimes, they even hear this from their seniors. The myth of the suffering artist.
Once, years ago, I asked my students to go see a famous novelist who had been invited to the university. He began his presentation/reading by stating that all artists must suffer, and they drink and/or do drugs as a result.
ARGH! Nooooo! Mr. Writer Guy: You just totally messed with my students! (I apologized to them the next class period.)
This is NOT Nimrod’s position, FYI. Because guess what? It’s not true. Happiness fosters not only art, but (obviously) life. It is—and this is only a perhaps—possibly easier to sit down and write if you’re already miserable and your everyday life holds no allure. Certainly on days when the weather is idyllic, and there are birds at all the feeders, and leftovers I needn’t mess with, it’s easy not to write. But when I think of the times my life was splintered into shards and fragments, I didn’t write. I simply couldn’t.
So, is sorrow good material? Maybe. But so is joy, folks. And if you look east, to art in Asia, there is art to be made from (and found in) each element of our days. There is art in dragonflies, and grasses, and even the calligraphy of our names.
And I know this. Yesterday, for instance, was a good day. Both my wonderful sons were here: the one currently visiting, and the one who lives a few blocks from us. My perfect grandsons and wonderful daughter-in-law were on view, as well. There was Chinese take-in my beloved ordered, so I didn’t need to cook. And the hummingbird feeders were sites of aerial ballet. But I didn’t write a word, other than some work emails.
Today? It’s raining, my younger son and I are having a lovely visit, and I’m writing. Writing. Poetry. About the crows calling outside, about the way the midsummer rain falls like heavy silk over the grass. About whatever. But I’m still happy. That hasn’t changed. Only the level of my activity has changed, and what I choose to spend my time on. Sometimes it’s grandsons, for instance. That doesn’t mean I write better when I’m unhappy. It may just be that when writers are unhappy, there’s nothing else in their everyday lives that claims their interest.
In other words—art does NOT require suffering. Happiness can be just as creative and a lot more fun. Especially if it’s genuine.
Now there’s a question: how to define authentic, genuine happiness? Is it the transient pleasure of a perfect cup of tea? (Maybe? I certainly think so.) Is it the giddy pleasure of my grandson running to me at daycare when I pick him up? Is it—really—any single thing?
No matter how momentous any single event, I’m pretty sure that genuine happiness wells up from a life well lived. Even in the midst of his great sorrow over Tibet, I’m betting that the Dalai Lama is happy. Same for Pope Francis, again in spite of his acute awareness of the desperate poverty around the world. And of course Desmond Tutu, even though he deplores the racial injustice here in the U.S. and elsewhere. And no, they’re not writing much poetry (at least not that I know of).
What will make us happy is our own life, ultimately. Which is what these various wise leaders—and others—have said for many, many years. Being kind to those around us; refusing to participate in inequity; cherishing the fragile young, the old, the poor, and the unfortunate. THAT will make us happy, because it becomes part of our everyday life, a daily attitude of happy, if that makes sense.
And then? Well, you can write poetry. If you’re so inclined. Honest. Because happiness . . . well, it feeds your inner artist. It gives you, I promise, lots to write about. And that’s more than enough to help you get past the myth of the suffering artist.
Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Nimrod, Spoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.
Illustrations from Britton’s blog, teaandbreath.com.