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Pain = Successful Art?
From great pain comes great art.

Sometimes. Or sometimes you're just lucky to survive.

Take the author of The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold. Right after the book first came out, I remember being jealous of her success,. Great reviews, great sales, a movie deal.

Then I read her memoir, Lucky, about her rape and brutal beating by a stranger when she was in college. (The cops called her "lucky" because another rape victim had also been murdered.) Her parents had various excuses for not coming to the rapist's trial. Later, she became addicted to heroin. It was easy to trace the connection between her pain and her art.

Or take Sharon Draper's Out of My Mind. It's spent weeks and weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It's about Melody, a girl born with cerebral palsy who cannot walk or talk, but who nonetheless is extremely bright. Sharon herself has a disabled child. That child is not Melody, but without that child, her book would never been born.

After great pain, a formal feeling comes

By Emily Dickinson

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

Can you think of others who have paid a lot for their success? Or who have found a way to translate their pain into art?


  1. Sylvia Plath and William Styron come to mind (the latter survived depression, the former succumbed to it). Also Charles Dickens (deprived childhood), Anne Lamott (survivor of addictions), Joan Didion (who wrote beautiful memoirs about wrenching losses), and Lucy Grealy (survived cancer but lost a battle with addiction). But I'm glad that in recent years, there has been a de-glamorizing of the "tortured artist." It's more like: if we have suffered, we can express it in art; but we shouldn't seek out suffering under the delusion that it's the only path to good art.

  2. I'm afraid all I can do right now is marvel at that poem. I don't know why I haven't read it before. Wow, Emily

  3. Yes, I was going to mention Charles Dickens... I also think of Ernest Hemingway and basically any author that suffers from any kind of mental illness.

  4. Ah, yes...the mad genius. It was a topic that was on my mind quite a bit as I wrote my first YA, A BLUE SO DARK, about a girl who cares for her mentally ill (artistic) mother, and fears that art will bring out the same illness in herself...

  5. Wow, I didn't know that poem. Thank you. And thank you for a great post.


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