You've all heard about the suffering artist. The media and our culture in general loves to glorify the idea, whether it's Vincent Van Gogh or the current celebrity in rehab.
My favorite example of the suffering artist is the late film director Sam Peckinpah (pictured). In interviews, he portrayed himself as the victim of a system that hated creativity - and the media ate it up. How could an artist survive this? Of course he needed to drink to put up with it! In truth, Peckinpah's suffering was mostly self-inflicted. According to his many biographers, every film he made was a war. It was the artist versus the suits. And on many of those projects, he sabotaged relationships and created enemies out of people who were in the position to be his allies. And it was much the same in his personal life. Now it's true that he was a self-destructive alcoholic, but it's commonly believed that the chaos he created was part of his creative process - as if he had a need to repeatedly wreck his professional and person life in order rise again. I have to admit that this is dramatic, but I have to wonder if it only diminished his work. It certainly made him into a walking disaster who died too soon.
As a young man, I swallowed the suffering artist idea whole. Looking back now, it makes perfect sense - at least in my case. My art began as a form of therapy to deal with a very unhappy adolescence. It was my only outlet, so it was easy for me to draw a line between suffering and art. In addition, I idolized people like Sam Peckinpah (the way he was portrayed in the media helped). For a while, I believed that I needed to continue suffering in order to produce. But this began to change when I was in art school. During that time I met plenty of artists, but I began to see that many of them were more interested in cultivating the artist's persona rather than producing art. And what is that persona? You suffer and you're misunderstood, bla, bla, bla. As I said above, it's dramatic. But it began to seem like an adolescent fantasy to me. And a little embarrassing.
Eventually, I came to the realization that there is only one thing that makes you an artist: creating art. Everything else is bullshit. And suffering is optional. This was a freeing realization to make. I was able to acknowledge that although my personal issues had played a big part in my becoming an artist, I didn't have to stay there. I only needed to produce. Today, I still see art as a form of therapy. It's a way of dealing with my demons, but it also makes me a more content and satisfied person. Yes, I often hang out in dark places (as I did with my most recent script), but I don't have to make my life dark in order to do that. In fact, I'm happy.
One last thing about Sam Peckinpah. He is one of my favorite directors. His self-destructiveness may have really helped his work (we'll never know), but I can't help wonder what would have happened if he had gotten his act together. Would he have made better movies? I think so. Definitely more of them. He certainly would have lived longer. And maybe he would have been happy, too.