Adversity and The Artist: The Persistent Myth of Inspirational Suffering

By Barlow Adams

There’s a certain hubris in agreeing to pen a column about writing through adversity. It’s an invitation to the powers that be to take you down a notch.

Let me tell you, those bastards listen.

In the months since I signed on to write this column it’s been an onslaught of death, sickness, heartbreak, financial woes, and sub-par gas station sushi (that last one may be on me).

When we were first deciding what expertise or knowledge I could bring to Wind & Root, we floated some ideas. I recall the EIC of Reckon Review suggesting I write a series about men penning sex scenes, since male writers notoriously struggle with that, and she felt I had acquitted myself adequately in that area in my past work.

I didn’t feel qualified, nor did I want to court the controversy and walk the tightrope that is writing about sexuality through the often troublesome “male-gaze.”

Bit of a confession: I should have written about the sex. All about the sex. Sex, sex, sex, all day long.

But we settled on something else I know a little about: producing creatively while undergoing difficult circumstances.

Then, as if in answer, every aspect of my existence caught fire simultaneously as I did my best dog-with-coffee-cup-in-burning-room impression. It’s fine. This is fine.

Friends, I cannot adequately explain how not fine it was. Or how adversely it affected my writing.

I missed deadlines. Failed in my obligations. Held up the flaming tips of my fingers like candles and blew on them as if I were making a birthday wish. Puff. Puff. Bring me a pony. Health insurance. A functional life. A second pony. (I may have eaten the first one.)

Of course, one of the obligations I failed to uphold was completing my column on writing through adversity.

The humor of this is not lost on me.

It also illustrates perhaps the greatest bit of wisdom I have to share.

For years I believed I should be more creative, more productive, because I was ill and my life was hard. The myth of the tortured artist was so prevalent, so inseparable from the idea of creation, it made me think it should be easy for me to produce quality work. This belief caused me shame and embarrassment—made me doubt whether I was a real artist.

If these legendary figures (the Poes, Van Goghs, and Plaths) could churn their agony into brilliance, surely I could manage…something?

I wasn’t alone in this.

During periods of incredible illness or crippling hardship I would occasionally manage little dribbles of fiction, essays, anything I could squeeze out.

When these pieces were decent—or sometimes even good—my fellow writers would occasionally express jealousy at what I’d been through. As if it were some special internship in anguish. This, they deduced, was the source of my ability, my talent and skill. Since it was the most readily identifiable difference between us, it must obviously be the answer.

Worse, I believed it myself. It took me years to write about my personal struggles. It seemed like cheating, tapping into those experiences. I avoided anything to do with them—determined to prove I was a good writer independently of those factors. It was work, perseverance, no—as preposterously as it sounds to say now—the advantage of my pain.

It took me decades to fully realize and accept what I am about to tell you: suffering, damage, and hardship do not fuel art. At best they inform it, at worst, they crush it.

This seems obvious, intuitive even. There is no other activity with which we associate an increase in hardship with elevated production.

Athletes who overcome physical limitations are inspiring. Those who manage to fight their way from poverty to financial success have bucked the odds.

Artists who suffer are merely legitimized. Emotional damage seems almost a requirement.

I remember attending a writing conference and the guest speaker joking, “I don’t trust people who don’t cuss or writers who don’t drink.” Apart from being terribly insensitive to addicts and those affected by alcoholism, the implication was that to be a writer, you not only had to have something to write about, but something to drink about.

So, you’re a writer? Where’s your pain? What suffering gives you the right?

What’s more, this agony is seen as a sort of petro—something to be channeled instantly through the combustion of creation to produce something valuable.

We are told of great works written DURING periods of poverty and suffering—as if these circumstances represent EXTREMELY LOW-COST writing residencies.

Free from the burden of sustainable existence, the creative soul is released to find the true potential of art. To uncover the human condition unimpeded by anything as mundane as comfort or safety.

We believe it. We’re taught to embrace it.

It’s bullshit.

In future columns I will tell you ways I’ve managed to write during difficult periods, little things that help and have made it possible for me to be a writer when existence itself felt like a stretch.

What I want to tell you above all, however, is writing through adversity is mostly nonsense. You write beside it, behind it, often paddling like mad in its wake.

You write through adversity the way a jogger runs through plantar fasciitis: gingerly, painfully, and with great patience.

Suffering is not a resource to be channeled: it’s an injury to be treated and a wound to be poulticed.

You survive, learn, take in as much as you can, and hope you find the words (at some point) to touch that feeling.

While it may be true that enough monkeys in a room with a typewriter will reproduce Shakespeare, no amount of sinking poets will produce Woolf.

Suffocation is not a gift. It’s not inspiring.

It’s crippling. It limits your higher functions.

You cannot write a good poem while drowning. You do it after you make it to the surface. After you swim to shore.

In rare, romanticized cases writing can save you. More often you will save yourself so you can write.

Read Barlow’s other work here at Reckon:

CNF – The Finch Hunter

Barlow Adams

Barlow Adams is a chronically ill writer in the Northern Kentucky area. He has survived kidney failure, lymphoma, and a saccular aneurysm. He occasionally wins writing awards and international competitions. He is overly fond of pie and smush-faced dogs.

One response to “Adversity and The Artist: The Persistent Myth of Inspirational Suffering”

  1. This is itself an excellent piece of writing about the creative process intermingling with the tortured soul.
    My hats off to you Barlow, looking forward to more insights.