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?] . . ."
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?
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