In our Western imagination, there is a romantic image of the artist as somehow special and apart from the rest of us – who is chosen to suffer in order to create great art. Writer and creative artist, Yang-May Ooi, asks what we can learn for our daily lives from this myth.
What we can learn from the myth of the suffering artist – thoughts on Nashville Season 3
I’m a great fan of the Stetsons & stilettos TV series Nashville which tells the story of the country and western music scene in that epyomous city. The series centres on a number of different female artists from Rayna James, the reigning Queen of Country to an up and coming young starlet who has won a reality singing contest, much like The Voice, Layla Grant.
Layla is portrayed in the show as superficial and ambitious, whose music is passable but who is considered to have no real talent. She tries to write some songs of her own but they are not very good. It is only after she has suffered terribly in her marriage and taken an overdose of alcohol and pills in an attempted suicide attempt in Season 3, that she comes into her own authentic voice. As she strums a guitar and sings from her broken soul, a jaded and cynical music executive is suddenly awakened to the true power of her talent.
Yes, it’s a bit cheesy and yes, this is a populist TV show which is high on soap opera. But this storyline does touch on something true and profound. Just because it’s cheesy doesn’t mean that it’s any less thought provoking if we can look beyond the melodrama to the human truth it is reaching for.
Being present to our pain
We all experience loss and failure, emotional suffering and distress. For all of us these moments of darkness peel back the layers – if we let them – to show us our innermost souls. For creative artists, we may be able to use this dark energy as part of our creative expression so that what we experience personally can take on a universality that touches the souls of others. For those whose talents and calling lie elsewhere, nonetheless such dark moments offer a latent energy that can be transformative for our daily lives – it’s a question of whether we are willing to be present to that pain in the first instance and then to accept it into who we are and what we do.
So in our personal lives, when we feel emotional pain, say, the pain of failure or rejection – really feel it without the masking emotion of anger, without denying it or making light of our emotions and without trying to avoid the pain by drinking or other destructive behaviour – we will be able to recover from it sooner and in a more healthy way.
The Power of Empathy
Such presence will also open our hearts to empathy when we see others going through the same thing – whereas those who have not fully lived and processed their own pain will meet those others defensively with closed, angry, cold or judgemental hearts. As a creative artist might take that painful energy and transform it into music – or stories or painting or dance – so we can transform our pain in this way into actions or behaviour that can be of service of others.
From personal to universal
Some examples I can think of include an overweight, unhappy sales executive trapped in a multinational who took a long, slow journey to fitness and eventually became a personal trainer to help others. A successful accountant who suffered from chronic fatigue for several years became a healer offering other M.E. sufferers the wisdom she had gained from her sturggle back to health. There are also countless others who are simply there for their friends and family in the fullness of their empathy because they’ve been in that place of pain and know what it’s like – and just being there is enough.
What you can do
So while Layla strums her way to becoming an empowered artist because of her suffering, we can also use our personal difficulties and pain to create something empowering for our own lives. Some practical approaches might be:
# Know that whatever you may be going through – our have gone through – you are not the only one
# What can you learn – have you learnt – from this personal difficulty that might help you in the future, or be of service to others?
# How might you express your experience in a way that could be a positive step for you – and for others? This might be through creative expression or doing something a practical/therapeutic for yourself or others.
# Who can you ask for kindness and support to help you through this, and who may be able to guide you in expressing your experience in a helpful way?
Photo: thanks to bvi4092 on flickr.com (COM)
Author: Yang-May Ooi
Yang-May Ooi is a writer & podcaster. Her creative work includes The Flame Tree and Mindgame (novels), Bound Feet Blues (theatre & family memoir), The Anxiety Advantage and Creative Conversations (podcasts). ¦ www.TigerSpirit.co.uk