The Tortured Artist

There is this question we were asked on the first day of class,“What is Literature?” Well, there were many answers that popped up. Some said that it stands the test of time, others suggested that it was how they framed the reality of life that makes it so important to study them.  

But then we were asked if we could imagine the book of a modern popular romance novelist being declared as literature. We all laughed at the idea. Why is it so hard to think of some writers as a classic writer of the future? 

The answer is not really that pleasant. There is a certain poetic stereotype that is linked to the thought of a ‘great’ writer – The Tortured Artist. Take any famous novelist or poet that you know of that doesn’t come under this time period – Mark Twain, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe. What do these people have in common?

It is with a certain sense ofgothic romanticism that people imagine the greatest of writers. The fact that these writers had a troubled life and that they had suffered from depression is often brought up when talking about the relationship between their life and work.  The pain and sorrow that an author feels is expected to make them a better artist than they were before. 

“And so, being young and dipt in folly

I fell in love with melancholy”

-Edgar Allan Poe, Romance

People often relate a certain sense of beauty with art that remains unsettling. Maybe it is the idea that there is something beautiful even in the darkest of thoughts that draws them to the idea of what a troubled mind can produce. But this idea goes wrong when people connect the thought of depression directly to the process of becoming a literary genius. What they do not realize is that it often makes it harder for writers to do what they do best.

Everyone’s experience with depression is different. But everyone who lives their life with it will tell you how hard it is for them to even start the day. The feeling of worthlessness that comes along with the darkness makes a person feel like there is no way that they could do a good job at something. Writer’s block is very hard to get rid of when you feel this way.

Many of you reading this might relate to this hopelessness of not being good enough. To you, I say DO NOT STOP. Every little word that you write helps you get more comfortable in saying what you have to say. Yes, there will be writing highs where you can write all day long and you won’t get tired of it. But in those moments where you feel you can’t write another word is where you have to push forward to expand your comfort level.

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Depression doesn’t make your writing any better. It is how you channel the emotions that you feel into your writing that helps develop it. When an artist learns how to express his feelings to his readers, he learns how to make them feel. And with that experience, he learns how to channel his other emotions. As he continues to create a link between how he feels and how he conveys it, the torturous process of getting through your writer’s block can soon become something cathartic, at least for those few moments.

Yes, all these great writers that I mentioned above suffered from depression. But isn’t it wrong to associate a mental illness that they had as the reason for their wonderful writing? Doing so, simply dismisses all the effort that they put to develop their talent, in spite of everything that they went through.  Sylvia Plath writes in her diary about her despair of not being able to write:

Very depressed today. Unable to write a thing. Menacing gods. I feel outcast on a cold star, unable to feel anything but an awful helpless numbness.

-Sylvia Plath

We need to keep in mind that these writers are not characters of fiction for whom a single event completely changes who they are. They were once struggling writers who were looking for a voice, just like any other writer. 

Living as a ‘tortured artist’ is often viewed in a very ideal form by the outside world. It does not acknowledge the work that the author puts in their writing and simply glorifies a very poetic image of mental illness in a way that is far from the truth. The Tortured Artist stereotype often makes us forget that brilliant writing has no particular form or content.

Embrace who you are and what you feel. Find your voice and use it in the best way that you can.

About the Author

Uma-PhotoUma Anilkumar is currently pursuing her Bachelor’s Degree in English Studies. She is often captivated by new, interesting ideas, especially that of pop culture and is always in search of learning something new.  A lover of all kinds of art, she is a writer and poet during her free time and dreams of publishing her own work in the future.

Author: Mith Books

Mith Books | The Merchant of Stories | Publisher of Timeless Tales from Around the World

3 thoughts

  1. Thank you for writing this very encouraging article, Uma. 🙂

    “The Tortured Artist stereotype often makes us forget that brilliant writing has no particular form or content”- This struck me to the core. Beautiful.

    This piece definitely gave me a lot to think about.

  2. So true! Yes, it is often believed that pain is what make the pen run smoothly. The post so wonderfully expressed the stereotype of tortured artist… a thing to ponder about…

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