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The Creative Value of Pain: Why do we write when we’re sad?

By Maia R. Becerra

Image is a collage. Pieces used: “The Death of Chatterton” by Henry Wallis, “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe, “Perfect Day” by Lou Reed, “Class of 2013” by Mitski and “Widow” by Sylvia Plath. By Maia R. Becerra.

Pieces used in the cover – “The Death of Chatterton” by Henry Wallis, “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe, “Perfect Day” by Lou Reed, “Class of 2013” by Mitski and “Widow” by Sylvia Plath.

Trigger warning – mentions of suicide

Starting in early English Romanticism, the idea of the tormented poet became the poster image of artistic expression. The tragic suicide of Thomas Chatterton and the eventual fixation with the dramatic nature of his death, prompted a wave of idolization for the archetype of the troubled artist. In combination with ideologies that stemmed from the movement in relation to the sublime and naturalism, the attempt to convey emotions beyond comprehension became a common denominator for both poets and artists. The idea of artistic expression falling victim to materialism, as well as the consequences of the industrial revolution, sparked the desire to find artistic freedom within the overwhelming nature of an oppressive society that depletes the minds of artists struggling to survive in such a constraining climate. The obsession with the pursuit of beauty within death and sorrow led to an extremely prolific era for poetry and literature, with these ideas later developing into a fixation with death and existential dread within the arts. Thus, this interest in the “beauty” of death and pain has permeated up until the modern age, stemming from artists and writers like Poe and Van Gogh, or even Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse. There seems to be an almost cult-like belief that surrounds the glorification of the troubled artist.

Why is it that sadness and grief are perceived as breeding grounds for creativity? There’s no denying the artistic qualities of a gut-wrenching poem or literary piece written as a troubling confession from an artist, yet why is there not the same glamour surrounding pieces that deal with lighter subjects? Why is it that the idea of a joyous artist is not as appealing to the masses in comparison to a deeply troubled one?

I doubt there are certain answers to any of these questions, but I believe that the reason sadness is perceived as a more compelling creative outlet is because of the inherent nature of the feeling itself. Grief, pain, and sadness are emotions that are often uncomfortable to talk about. It is hard to sit down with a friend and tell them about how you were spiralling for hours while listening to melodramatic music just to look back at the cause of the emotion and realize it was not that bad, but it's not at all difficult to talk about your amazing day full of joy and happiness. These emotions might be perceived as not equally complicated to convey, and for some audiences, the complexity of grief and sadness is what makes a piece more engaging on a personal level. In relation to this, the popularization of toxic “positivity” as a constant state of being can drive readers to reject the idea of pieces that continuously talk about joyful subjects with a polarized perspective on human emotion. This aspect of relatability is also extremely important when producing an emotion-driven piece of art, especially in an age such as the one we are living in right now, where the current political climate and ecological disasters lead most of us to experience very strong feelings of existential dread, combined with the quotidian afflictions of being human.

That’s where poetry and art come into play. Feelings of sadness and sorrow are, after all, ephemeral, yet extremely intense in the moment they are being experienced. The intensity can potentially turn into momentum to produce art, and this art can captivate the abstract qualities of emotions that can only be expressed through choked-out sobs or screams of frustration. Personally, poems like “Widow” by Sylvia Plath or songs like “Perfect Day” by Lou Reed evoke feelings that are indescribable but still resonate with a state of grief or sorrow. Regardless, the idea of the troubled artist is still glorified in our cultural context, whether it is on a literary or entertainment level, but there is something to be gained from it: at the end of the day, every artist is to a certain extent, troubled. There is always a sentimental quality to every piece of art ever made, and it is healthy to embrace the grievances that drive us to produce texts about sadness and pain. The idea of pain and sorrow producing beauty amid catastrophe is, regardless of what people might argue through toxic positivity, a fundamental part of the human experience.


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