Is Suffering Necessary to Produce Great Art?

This sunrise photo was taken at a campground an hour west of Oklahoma City, OK, not a tropical island. It’s one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen, and it was gifted to me a little over year after my mom died. Remember, spectacular colors in the sky are only given to us right before and after nightfall.

This is a loaded question, one which has fueled heated debates with art historians for centuries. Many of the world’s most famous artists are well-known for being tortured souls, while others like Bob Rossi, were mocked for painting with Happy Blue. Being a life-time creative myself, this is hard one for me to answer.

Once upon a time, I would have replied with a resounding “no!” Because I considered myself a relatively well-adjusted person, who was reasonably happy and still felt capable of being creative. In fact, my creative outlets are my happy place. I can confidently call myself an introvert, the type of person generally believed to gravitate to the arts, but I am not going to claim it’s a requirement. However, I will say this. Introverts are attention seekers, like everyone else. Producing art is simply a means for us to say, “Hey, look at me!”, without others staring at our shy selves directly. (Banksy)

If you are blessed to live long enough, you will experience plenty of highs and lows. Alas, the lows seem to be more memorable, a bad mental habit most of us should work on more frequently. We took a hit in more ways than one after Karl suffered his back injury. It was a bruising experience for our entire family, and took several years to resolve. Something I’m certain a few too many Military families have been forced to endure. Not long after we finally settled matters, my mom died. Though I’ve lost other loved ones, like all my grandparents, nothing which came before compared to that loss.

Did it change me? Hell yes, it did. Now I have a choice, deciding if or how to wield the new tool in my emotional art supplies. I’m a Romance writer and not the least bit ashamed of admitting it. Being a reader of many genres, I’ve said it before and will say it again. “A good story is a good story, period.”

Going back to my fine art background, I’ve taken art appreciation courses. Personally, I think they’re bunk, asking questions like the differences between “art” and “craft”. Usually, art is given precedence as being more valuable, but the two usually overlap each other. Being a practitioner of both, I don’t differentiate between them. What I choose to produce at any given time depends on my emotions. Sometimes, I’m in the mood to challenge myself and will create something complicated. It’s nice to prove to myself, yes indeed, I can do it. On other occasions, I find quick projects equally satisfying. The robe I wore in last weekend’s blog photo, I made the previous week. (“Reading is the Gift That Keeps on Giving”) Yes, that photo was planned specifically for this blog, but making the robe was also a bit of stash busting. I’ve had the fabric and vintage sewing pattern which produced it for a few years now. Wanting to use it for my goofy photo gave me the motivation to finally finish it.

How does this help the writer? If you’re not certain, visit my post “Creatives are Whole Brain People”. Like all art, writing is a complicated discipline with many components which make it a complete work. And what is art? Human beings expressing their emotions, turning the most frustratingly intangible part of our existence, into something tangible, to which others of our kind can relate. The light, fluffy stories have just as much value as deep, dark thrillers which scare the pants off us. What resonates with a reader will depend on what we need emotionally at a particular time. After a difficult day, a light romp which makes us laugh might be a better choice than the deep, dark story. I guess it depends on one’s ability to differentiate between reality and entertainment.

Artists, regardless of the discipline they pursue, do it because they are seeking to leave a legacy behind them which says, “Look World! I really was here!” How long it lasts and how many it reaches, depends on how much of ourselves we are willing to give to the end result. I’ve mentioned more than once now, the book I started at the age of twenty-one is not the book I ultimately wrote at fifty-one. Yes, my dream is to make a living writing, but I’m not a book factory. I’ve always taken my writing very seriously. If it doesn’t meet my criteria as a picky reader, I don’t make it available for public consumption until it does. I would far rather leave behind a small body of work, which becomes a part of those who bless it with their attention; than to entertain them for five minutes, only to be forgotten just as quickly. Even these blog posts are revised and edited several times before I publish them.

I adore humor, and I’ll be the first to admit I like the snarky, irreverent stuff. (Mel Brooks) I watch TV shows and movies for the fun of mocking the premise/plot, or making predictions about the plot which often come true, much to my family’s frustration. Ancient Aliens and Star Wars, I’m looking at you. SpongeBob explained the whole alien thing when it comes to monolithic structures. “Oh, it’s a rock! The Pioneers could ride these babies for miles!” (Carnac, France is a Pioneer Parking Lot, people.) Out of the Star Wars movies, The Empire Strikes Back tends to be the one which most people agree is the best, but it is that dark moment which upped the stakes and made Return of the Jedi’s celebratory ending much more satisfying. Out of the recent trilogy, I’m withholding final judgement until I see the last one. I’m a big fan of most of the Pixar movies. My older daughter and I watched Frozen II last Friday. I finally watched Coco this past weekend, and was very impressed with both. They got me with plot twists I didn’t see coming. Ultimately, the best art, the stuff which stays with us the longest has depth. Depth is achieved by using contrast, both light and dark. Otherwise, you have a work whose aspect can best be described as flat.

I wrote a 90,000 word book, give or take a few words, and I had to make some hard choices. Though I would have preferred it, there is no way a light romp will sustain a story that length. It meant tapping into parts of myself I usually try to ignore most of the time, just so I can get through my day. I’m generally a private person, and my mom’s death is not something I talk about much with others, outside my immediate family. Even amongst ourselves, we don’t talk about it so much now, because we’re still trying to move forward. Without that pain, I couldn’t have written the book I recently finished. There were a few scenes I was crying so hard, I couldn’t see what I was typing. So, to answer my original question, “Is suffering necessary to produce great art?” After some reflection, I’m going to say yes, it is. There are just some occasions when imagination simply isn’t enough. (Sorry, SpongeBob) Writing to express and touch emotions is one of them. Embracing life’s dark, painful moments highlights how rare and special the joyful, peaceful gifts truly are. Both reflect the reality of the human experience, and together create something which stays with others for eternity.

Quote of the Week

I live light, dark and all the shades in between; therefore I am.

Kristal DeJong

2 thoughts on “Is Suffering Necessary to Produce Great Art?

  1. Great post, Kristal. Experience gives us the details our imagination misses and as Mel Brooks said, “Immortality is a by-product of good work.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s