Black Swan

Yesterday, sitting down and typing away, preparing for a talk I'll be giving later this month at a conference exploring the subject of "Creativity and Madness," I was giving some thought to my moments of extremity as an artist--for example, my apparent inability to get through the writing of a serious literary novel without going to some very dark and at times unhinged places, in which I sit at my desk and feel "strangely dissipated . . . unglued . . . unable to feel the distinction between the edges of my body and the air around me . . . and yet, all the same, pierced by a deep, heartbreaking anguish"--when I suddenly thought to ask myself: 

What kinds of narratives have I inherited regarding creativity and what it's supposed to feel like?  And how might these narratives be affecting the way I approach and experience my work and its processes, and perhaps even shape my expectations of what "ought" to happen when I sit down to write?  Have I actually always assumed a kind of relationship between creativity and mad, mad suffering?

Oh my goodness.

I then wrote this: 

"It's curious, but I have a history of associating creativity with pain, with suffering, and with physical and psychic extremity. And the reason I have this history is because, before I became a writer, I was a professional ballet dancer.  And the art of classical ballet is, simply put, mad--and it is excruciatingly painful to produce.  Dancers wear impossibly narrow, impossibly hard shoes made of dense layers of paper and glue and paper and glue and then [not unlike books] covered in shininess--and then dance in these shoes until their toes bleed, their nails fall off and their feet have to be soaked so they can get through the next day.  Dancers assume bizarre postures that exert tremendous pressure on the body, to the point where neck, back, and knees stiffen, ache, rebel, and sometimes completely give out.  Yet dancers continue to suffer in order to create the dance.  And then, of course, there are the mental pressures . . . the competitiveness . . . the constant sense of personal imperfection, of never being good enough [Black Swan, anyone?] . . ."

Oh dear.

It's odd, isn't it, how far you can go down a road before looking back and asking if there is anything that makes you put your feet down on it a certain way.  It has never in my life occurred to me that art might be anything other than harrowing to produce (though every time I sit down to write a book, I hope it will be easier); and it has never in my life occurred to me (until now) that I might have an investment--or at least developed some pronounced habits of thinking--in certain ways about what an artist has to do to produce truly worthy ("perfect" . . . "beautiful") art.

But then again maybe you can't really get away from the pain, right?  I mean, not if you're doing something serious, right?  I mean, not if you really want it to be any good, right?

Where are my shoes?



Jeanna Thornton said…
Mylene, the Black Swan was very enlightening: the hard work, the grueling discipline, the need for perfection…enough to thrust the heart and mind into turmoil. Writing or dancing, the passion exists. I admit I thought of you as the dancer practiced over and over again, hoping to lose herself in her art. So easily done with writing…as the rhythm, the flow and the losing come together. And so easily questioned as we strive for perfection….
Suzan Harden said…
I have a friend, who like you, Mylene, had been a professional dancer. Shelley had literally burned herself out, physically and mentally. We've had long talks over the last twenty years about art and emotions, with me firmly entrenched in the position that art should bring out your best and not destroy your body and soul. Of course, Shelley had a different opinion.

She recently moved to a small town in the Carolina backwoods. The local dance teacher, upon learning Shelley's background, cajoled her into helping with some classes. Shelley's sticking with tap since it doesn't send her into excruciating pain, but the picture of her and her students at a local talent show said it all. Shelley has found her creative joy again.
Mylène said…
What a coincidence, Jeanna, Suzan: After I put up this post, I went to the gym, and for the first time in twenty years walked into the room with the ballet barre . . . and danced. Did it hurt? Yes. (But in different places.) Did it feel good to be lost in the movement? Yes. And that's the fascination. I wouldn't keep coming back to art if it didn't heal as much as cut,
Mylène said…
And here is a comment sent to me via Facebook from Eric Leyer, recently graduated from the creative writing program at Westminster College (I have his permission to re=post it here):

"This reminded me much of Lorca's duende. While the perspective is different, the concept is similar, which I understand to be best described as walking the edge of the knife - that fine line between life and death. I have tried to write without pain, but it is never effective for me. It is the pain, the madness, the suffering that allows writers to see into the soul of the world and find those precious words that both define and challenge humanity. Even last night, I told one of my closest friends and personal editor that I'm afraid to write. I know it will be painful as I once again draw upon my understanding and the experiences that shredded my soul, to create from the scraps something beautiful in the form of a poem, an article, a story...
Mylène said…
By the way, I'd love to hear from folks who find suffering completely unnecessary to the creative act. It is not REQUIRED, after all. Look at the playfulness of Roy Lichtenstein's art: the man (according to his son) never had a demon-ridden workday in his life.
Barbara Sissel said…
This question of whether pain is required for art to be properly unfolded has always fascinated me. I think of Faulkner and Poe both of whom were said to have suffered. The Brontes, too. I'm sure there are so many more. I always heard my entire life that suffering for one's art was noble. Even without the art, suffering in one's life was noble. In the last few years, I've questioned that. Why suffering? Why not joy? When at times (when I'm not banging my head against the wall over some inability to produce on the page what is in my brain) the writing gives me such joy? I've undertaken this as a viewpoint. I have it posted near where I work ... Experiencing joy is noble ... in the belief that joy can be the linchpin, as well as the source. I wonder if there isn't some marriage of the two, a balance between them?

Mylène, I also danced but never until your post thought about how the idea of suffering and art might have become inextricably bound in my mind then only to be reinforced through the years of my practice or how I might have carried that experience of art into this one ... of writing. I remember finding joy in dancing; I remember the exhilaration and freedom. I think how I now find all of this in writing on occasion. And sometimes, when I am alone, I still dance.
Eric Leyer said…
"I wouldn't keep coming back to art if it didn't heal as much as cut"

Beautifully stated, Mylene. While the cutting is expected, it is through the pain of writing that I have been able to gather the pieces and remake my life as it needs to be, which is far better than it ever was. Some wounds require being re-cut and cleaned so that healing may finally begin. I find that writing is the cutting and bleeding of the wound; revision (my bane) is the cleaning and refining that purifies the soul. Both painful, both necessary. Both life-giving.
Jeanna Thornton said…
I love this post...what has been said, what we are hoping to say...

Mylene, you have a way of conjuring the best from us!
Loved, loved, loved the post and comments, Mylene. I'm not really a "suffer for my art" or "madness of creation" kind of a gal. Oh, the business end can be angst-ridden, but the process is joy itself... Frustrating at times, but so very seductive. I don't know how I'd ever quit writing, even if the publishing contracts all dried up.
Mylène said…
Colleen, I bet you COULDN'T!

Barbara, I hope you dance, still, in both body and word.

Eric and Jeanna (and all), thanks for more greats comments and keeping the thread pirouetting.

And friends, how's this for a coincidence: this afternoon I began reading a book called "The Midnight Disease," about the compulsion to write and its neurobiologic sources. Turns out suffering affects the brain and the limbic system in very specific ways that result in the need to create and communicate. So go on. Knock yourself out. ;-)
Beautiful post, and fantastic comments. The funny thing is that so much of what you wrote, Mylene, about the competitiveness and the never feeling like you can measure up resonated with the shell shock I experienced in graduate school. I think it was because I was writing about subjects that were disturbing, and so often writers in graduate programs aren't comfortable with that. There's even a panel here at the AWP about "responding to disturbing" work in undergraduate writing. But I so agree with your comment about even as it cuts, it heals. I have this strange feeling that that is what my work will do--that somehow I'm supposed to write into the darkness and yet come out with hope. I want to bring the reader along with me into that hope as well, but it's such a fine line for the reader as well, because readers are easily turned off of difficult emotional truths. I think of Alice Sebold here, and the first chapter of The Lovely Bones. I loved it, but I could see why many of my students didn't want to read on. As I've heard before, "I just can't take that kind of sad."

Great post.
Mylène said…
I hear that too, Kat, in slightly different form: "We're in a recession, people want escapist literature . . ." and probably nobody wants to hear about something as esoteric and effete as artistic suffering. But there it is.

Anxious to hear about your presentation . . .

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