The Tortured Artist Series:
III. When You Fall into the Tortured Artist Fiction
When you fall into the Tortured Artist fiction, know that it’s normal. This stereotype has been placed upon us for so long because we are brave enough to express the darkest parts of ourselves to the world. Parts that others would never dare share. Sylvia Plath was a famous confessional poet, but she is known for her crippling depression. Edgar Allen Poe taught us the macabre, but he is known for his addictions. Vincent van Gogh–do I honestly need to tell you what he’s known for other than his paintings?
Their works were great, not because they were hurting, but because they had the courage to share it in spite of their pain. They tirelessly went over draft after draft until they found the point of publication. Van Gogh painted some of his most famous works when he was seeking treatment in an asylum.
It’s easy to feel like the worst things about ourselves make the best art. There was a time when I only wrote about my depression and the saddest things I’ve ever experienced, but my Spoken Word professor, Kip Fulbeck, once told me, “Mei-Mei, your writing is so sad, but you’re always smiling. You know who has the loudest laugh in the room? You.”
I had ignored a huge part of my life in my art until that class: all the things that make me happy. I added Disney songs into my poetry and started to talk about my friends. I wrote about my parents–the things I loved and the things I never agreed with. It’s absolutely okay to only focus on the terrible things in your art, but don’t forget there’s more to you as a human than that.
I want you to feel as seen as I did then. I want you to remember you are a whole person and not simply darkness. You are also light.
If you haven’t read the first two parts of this series (The Elephant in the Room Holding a Paintbrush Needs a Therapist and Healing the Tortured Artist with Books), I suggest you go back so you get the full picture. Without further ado, the finale of this series.
7 Steps to Feel Like a Whole Artist: The Good, the Bad, and Everything in Between
Step 1: “I am human first.”
Acknowledge that there is something wrong with the way you perceive yourself. Is this healthy? Is this thinking good for me? Is it keeping me from what I need? Forget the pressures of creating for a second. Forget the deadlines. Forget that you have canvases or drafts unfinished. Did you eat or drink water today? When was the last time you saw sunlight? Have you spoken to anyone today about anything other than work?
Basic needs. Mental health. Social interaction. If you answered “No or “I don’t know” to any of these, I would strongly suggest starting with a glass of water or something to eat. After a panic attack or thought spiral, I try to ask myself these simple questions about things I need to feel balanced.
So when you decide to pick up the pen or type on the keyboard, maybe don’t sit in the chair for 6 hours straight without food or water? I have done this plenty of times, especially while painting, but I feel awful afterward. My stomach turns, my eyes burn and my hands cramp up so badly I have to attempt to give myself a massage. Giving yourself a hand massage with hurt hands is like rubbing salt into a wound. Do not let yourself get an early onset of carpal tunnel!
After that binge, I feel like I can’t create anything for the next few days, or even up to a week. You are a living being. You have essential needs. We can’t run on ink or paint no matter how much we try.
Step 2: “I am not alone.”
I focused Part Two, Healing the Tortured Artist (with Books) of this series on the idea that you can surround yourself with works and media that help you boost your empathy. I believe that the foundation of empathy lies in the understanding of oneself. It’s hard to empathize with another person when you aren’t in tune with what you feel.
Growing up, I didn’t think anyone understood how I felt until I read books that explained the thoughts in my head. I felt even more seen when my friends read those very same books and we talked about them for hours, fangirling over characters and plot points. We talked about a character’s growth or certain quotes we resonated with. Throughout high school, I wrote quotes from books I felt deeply in the back of every yearly planner the school gave me. The inside back cover would get so filled I had to start writing the sentences in rectangular spirals.
When you give yourself the time and resources to read about others or reflect on your feelings, it gives you insight. You see in others what you see in yourself.
This will help you make art that gives a more holistic insight into your experience, rather than a stereotype of what you think people want to see from artists.
Step 3: “I am not my pain or hardships.”
This is a hard one to realize because we are so influenced by the things that have happened to us: however, while we are influenced, these occurrences do not define us. Sure, I procrastinate when it comes to writing or neglect to finish drafts because of my crippling fear of failure, probably stemming from years of conditioning in my youth that failure was not an option.
But I get it done . . . eventually. I give myself the grace to understand that good writing takes time. It’s not going to come out perfect on the first try. Any difficulty I have getting to that point does not define me. I’m timid at first, but I muster the courage to keep going because I want to make art, and that drives me more than the trauma that tries to discourage me.
It’s okay to let yourself succeed and be happy. I used to think that I couldn’t be happy because
I’m a writer and of course, Depressive Disorder doesn’t help, but the idea that I need to suffer to be creative was hindering my ability to heal. I believed that if I disconnect myself from the deep sadness I had brewing inside me, I would lose my talent. I would lose that “spark” or “special power” that made me an artist, but that’s a whole load of bologna.
Step 4: “I am not broken. I can heal when I’m ready.”
I know it is a privilege to be able to seek professional help. I know it is a privilege to be able to talk to loved ones about mental health. We are not all afforded environments without stigma, struggle, or hardship.
I started with therapy/counseling as late as eighteen when I took advantage of my university’s free services. I had to change counselors every year because they were all students, but it was something and it was progress. It’s never too early or too late to start the healing process. Whether you seek professional help or look into the alternatives, you can do it.
It’s okay to feel broken. I know that writing and expressing your pain makes it all the more bearable, but do not suffer for the sake of your art.
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re running and you think, ‘Man, this hurts, I can’t take it anymore. The ‘hurt’ part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand anymore is up to the runner himself.”
-Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Step 5: “I am worthy of support and deserve a community that lifts me up.”
When you feel ready, reach out to other writers and artists. I can assure you that they will lift you up with open arms because sometimes being a creative person makes you feel like an “other.” I was the quiet girl who sat in class with a book hidden in her lap instead of her phone. I broke my leg once and the next day, everyone was so surprised. In Chemistry, my friends and classmates all started to laugh about it with me. One of my friends even said, “Mei-Mei I was so surprised to hear that you broke your leg–I was like ‘What did she do?? Trip on a pile of books???’” I thought it was hilarious and I still do, but very few people I knew were that obsessed with reading. And we were all so shy, I was only close friends with one of them.
Entering college, I knew that I needed a group. I couldn’t keep being the kid who was the butt end of a joke about reading, albeit a great one. I wanted to feel like something that became so intrinsic in my personality wasn’t weird or different, but shared. I knew I needed to feel like I belonged somewhere, so I looked up “writing group at UCSB” in Google Search my freshman year. And that was how I found Poets’ Club’s Facebook. I teetered on going throughout first quarter and finally decided to go my second quarter.
My life changed. I changed. I shared the hardest parts of my life and others did the same; through this club, I found people who make me happiest in the whole world. Out of the darkest meetings, came about this light of hope and kinship and love.
Through opening myself up to community, rather than shutting myself in as the “lonely” or “suffering” writer, I was able to meet pretty incredible and talented writers. Meeting them in person reminded me how human they are. They’re people, just like you and me. Yesika Salgado gave me a huge hug when I came up to her after her poetry reading. When she realized one of her poems about sexual assault made me sob, she asked if she could give me a hug. It was one of the best hugs I’ve ever gotten. As a writer, when you’re in pain, you put it on the page and carry it with you. If you keep it close to heart, it can feel like that’s all there is, but you’re not alone.
Writing isn’t solitary confinement. Writing is community. Writing is expression. It’s a way to truly understand yourself and others–don’t let stereotypes turn a beautiful craft into a glorification of how “suffering creates the best art.” It’s not true.
Being vulnerable and open led me to the best art I’ve ever created and letting go of the tortured artist persona gave me a freedom to love myself and whatever I create, even if it’s a sappy self-love ballad.
The Love Yourself Foundation fell into my lap after I started this journey of self-love and discovered the wholeness that I can have as an artist. You are worthy of support and you don’t have to box yourself into a stereotype that does not serve you.
Step 6: “I won’t change overnight.”
I think this is one of the hardest, if not the hardest step to remember. Step One and Step Five are up there with it. I think it’s easy to isolate yourself with your craft, and you can get caught up in media where the best novels or movies or what have you were made in the darkest points of people’s lives. I don’t think they cover the healing that it takes to get back from those dark points.
Just now, I felt my head getting foggy and realized I was hungry. It took everything for me to step away from my laptop and make a bowl of soup. I had been so accustomed to neglecting my needs to write that I never bothered to learn a balance between my health and my writing. It took me years to realize that my health and the quality of my art go hand-in-hand.
When you pull an all-nighter, skip meals, or don’t take your medication to make “better” art, go back to Step Four and Step Five. Reach out. That’s what I do. Getting help from another person is the easiest way for me to get out of my “tortured artist mindset” because my friends don’t see me as an artist first. They see me as a person they love.
It’s going to take time to learn how to love and care for the artist in you, and that’s okay.
Step 7: “I know I don’t want to perpetuate this stereotype, and I don’t want others to either.”
Once you feel up for it, research the stereotype. Look at how much it has affected artists and once you give yourself the knowledge, it’ll help you support what you know to be true. So if ever you find yourself hearing something along the lines of “most artists have mental issues . . .,” you can take a deep breath and explain how that thinking is damaging to creators.
You can advocate for yourself and for others. It doesn’t matter how small the act is. When you make moves to give your perspective, you are giving someone a view they’ve never seen before: a whole artist.
Remember. We’ve never been broken. We’ve never been just one part. We have always and forever will be whole.
About the Author
Mei-Mei has worn many hats since joining LYF. Executive Assistant, Event Manager, Editor-in-Chief, but before anything, she is a human who loves to write and make art. She graduated from UC, Santa Barbara with a B.A. in English and a minor in German. She was the President of UCSB Poets' Club. She has traveled to 12 countries and counting, feeling lucky and cursed as an Army brat. In 2019, she moved for the 9th time from Santa Barbara to Las Vegas, where she put her love for writing, performing, advocating for mental health, and building communities into the Love Yourself Foundation.