Torture Doesn't Make the Artist

As I write this, I’m at one of the lowest points in my life.

First, my day job wrings the soul out of me each day, leaving me feeling unfulfilled, unappreciated, and underpaid—and I’m thoroughly convinced it’s the best opportunity available.

Second, I’ve come to the realization that while I love Jesus, I do not love the Evangelical church—or rather, I love it in the despairing way you can a family member who has made horrible decisions and who now must face the consequences of separation because you can no longer be responsible for their choices. For I also love others, my brothers, my sisters, my dearly beloved LGBTQ+ friends who have been reviled by the church. I can only believe now that to love them as Christ loves, I must leave the church that refuses to do so.

And finally… I sit in the middle of a week that has already been ever so long, at the end of which I will, for his own sake, say goodbye to a cat who has been my friend for just a little more than three years. Today, I purchased the last three cans of food I will ever buy for him. I cried in the grocery store as I picked up the cans, wishing some random stranger would see me and hug me and tell me it would be alright.

I write all this because they are the only words that will come.

The myth of the tortured artist, for me, has never felt much like the truth. There have certainly been times in the past when I’ve been able to turn exasperation into story—the earliest form of my frustrations with the Evangelical church turned into the most personal story I’ve ever written, and my fury at the idiocy I felt that I saw around me during COVID lockdown led to Bowling With the President of the United States of America—but depression and despair themselves have never done anything but rip the animating force of artistry from my brain meat and spirit alike.

I’ve been like this before. I know what it’s like. It makes me so I can’t do anything, and the thing I can’t do any of the most is writing fiction.

Well-meaning friends have encouraged me to try anyway, to write (or edit, God forbid!) as therapy.

When the funk is milder, when I’m on the road to despair but still finding my way on the path to the all-consuming vortex, journaling is admittedly very helpful. It’s a wonderful way to express my frustrations without another poor soul having to listen to me vent. When I wrote commentary for Emotional Agility by Susan David, a confused and confusing introduction to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), the biggest takeaway for me was that someday I really should read A Liberated Mind by Stephen C. Hayes, the gentleman who came up with ACT to begin with. My second biggest takeaway was that journaling is really helpful, even if David didn’t exactly explain why.

But… writing a story? Not going to happen, I’m afraid. I tried yesterday.

Sure, there were a few paragraphs on the page when all was said and done, but they raised in me such a visceral feeling of disgust and hatred for all who have ever put quill to parchment, left me with such a firm belief that art has no intrinsic merit and doesn’t really actually exist, that I’m lucky I came away from that session with my spirits lowered only as much as they were.

This matches my experience some years ago when, as now, the two events of “major depressive episode” and “is trying to ‘be a writer’” overlapped for the first time in my life. At that time, picking up and reading How the Light Gets In by Pat Schneider—a book which I’d picked up on a whim months before from the grocery store donation box and which had then sat untouched until that point—saved me.

Please indulge me, dear reader, as I take a moment to share some of my highlights from that book (I’ve since given that hard copy to a friend and have repurchased on Kindle).

“Putting words onto paper—when it is done as an honest act of search or connection, rather than as an act of manipulation, performance, self-aggrandizement or self-protection—is a holy act.” -Shneider, 15

“Something in me that was broken, cracked—becomes whole. The cracks, if I write them with utter honesty, are where ‘the light gets in.’ The present meets the past, and healing begins.” -Shneider, 47

“I believe that forgiving can’t be done by willpower alone. I can will myself to write out my own memories and feelings. I can will myself to imagine onto the page how someone else may have felt. I can will myself to research someone else’s life in order to better understand what happened. But I don’t think I can forgive by simply willing to forgive. Forgiving happens to us when our hearts are ready. … We can’t forgive through willpower. What we can do is work toward readiness of heart.” -Shneider, 144

It’s a very good book, if you happen to be even the most vaguely spiritually and writerly inclined.

Not only did it save me as a human, giving me reason to think it might be possible to continue living from day to day for the rest of my life, but it saved me also as a writer. It broke things in me that I thought were already broken, indeed letting some light in where I’d thought there was plenty of illumination already. The Evangelical church, as it happens, is pretty good at making you think you’ve already done the work of becoming human when you’ve only barely just begun.

Whenever I think of that book, of that time in general and the tearing void of meaning it left in my life and artistry, I think also of a line of Damon Knight’s from Creating Short Fiction.

“I have been through three or four serious slumps, lasting a year or more, and each time I have come out the other side writing something quite different and, I think, better. -Knight, 157

That was the case for me then. If I have any tiny piece of hope for the future today, right here and now, it’s that it may be the case for me again.

I am, at the moment, tortured. This same torture is making me not, at the moment, an artist. For me, those are exclusive things. Maybe when the torture ends I will see the world in a different way, and perhaps if I become an artist again then some good will come out of it.

Actually, dear reader, I have another hope.

If you needed to read this in some way, whether to receive permission to be tortured but not an artist, or an artist but not tortured, to be told in some way that aligns with anything that I said here that you are not alone, then I hope you found this when it was needed, maybe even as I found How the Light Gets In—and maybe even it will come to pass that I led you to that very same book, and it helped you as it helped me, and for once I can feel that in being the vector for an ideological virus, I did, in fact, make the world a better place.

Update 6/9/24

The veterinarian blessed me in an incredible, unexpected way. I didn’t have to say goodbye to my cat this past week, and hopefully he will live a happy life for a good while longer.

Update 6/19/24

My cat passed away on the 13th. I’m grateful his pain is over.

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.

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