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Do You Have To Be Tortured To Make Good Art?

Where does inspiration come from? It’s a classic artist conundrum: to be content and uninspired, or unhappy with lots of material. We’re attached to the archetype of the brilliant tortured artist (Kurt Cobain, Elliott Smith) or the musician who only writes songs about breakups (Lily Allen, Taylor Swift).

Given that my favorites are dark, tortured souls (Fiona Apple, The National), I’ve often felt like I had to make a choice in my personal development: to pursue happiness, or to pursue art. But not both.

When I started writing music as a teen, my songs were invariably dark. I was shy and mild-mannered in my day-to-day life, but I became a different person in my music: angry, bold, wounded. Lyric after lyric, song after song poured out of me. There seemed to be no end from what I could make from my secret pain.

My darkness was my muse. But it was a fragile one. I thought I had to protect it. I shut out any outside feedback, rejected the idea of further musical training. I didn’t want to allow outside influences to taint my gift.

My art was so precious to me that I thought its connection with others was only a matter of time and fate. To my surprise and devastation, my laying bare of my wounds didn’t get me very far. And in periods where I was happier, I rarely wanted to write.

I realize now what happened. I thought I was creating beauty from pain, but my motivation wasn’t to build connections with others. It was self-obsession.

When my eyes are focused outward instead of inward, I see beauty everywhere. And I want to package my music in relatable ways, not in odd chord progressions because “that’s just how it came out.” Art has become more about building bridges on what is universal and less about making other people recognize what I’ve been through.

Of course, some artists are able to channel brilliance through their misery. But being tortured is not the only path. And for some of us, it can even be a hindrance.

Published in Inspiration

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