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Suffering and Art … puhleeeze

by | Sep 15, 2018 | General | 7 comments

Recently, over on the Oh Get A Grip blog, Lisabet Sarai noted a preponderance of famous artists who suffered from some sort of mental illness, and wondered if suffering for your art was essential to creativity.

I was reminded of that as I underwent the new protocol for screening for depression. If you haven’t had your annual checkup, be prepared to be asked a series of questions ranging from the softball – have you been feeling down lately? – to the startlingly hardball: have you tried to kill yourself?

 My interrogator was a bit taken aback at my response when she asked me if I’d felt depressed anytime during the past few months. First I said yes. Then I laughed, out loud and heartily.

I quickly assured her I wasn’t off my rocker.

“C’mon,” I said. “You know what I’ve been through. If I wasn’t depressed, I’d be afraid there was something wrong with me.”

This time she laughed; after all, she had my recent medical history in her hand.

As the end of last year approached I was contemplating an easy slide into retirement, which was to include a nice chunk of change in the form of a $50,000 severance. Around Christmas time, the place I worked for declared Chapter 11. Kiss that severance goodbye. Not to worry, though, as I had squirreled away enough for a decent nest egg. But damn, that 50 grand was going to be my European river cruise money.

About five weeks after that great news I was hospitalized for seven days and diagnosed with a scary auto-immune disease. Today I’m taking about 15 pills for breakfast, some of which come with vexing side effects.

Then, just to drop the hammer on the bump left from the last brick that fell out of the sky, I came out of the hospital with a crippling sciatica that I blame on the bed and which I still haven’t shed entirely.

By that time, I was beginning to understand how easily people came to believe in witchcraft and such, because I was convinced someone was going bat-shit crazy with a voodoo doll of me. Talk about a series of unfortunate events.

So, yeah, I was depressed. But I had reasons to be depressed. And I wasn’t at all uncomfortable about being depressed.

In fact, I embraced my depression, got crabby and enthusiastically vented my irritation. And while I cursed my fate with gusto, in no way was I going to trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries. After all, I am the son of an Irish mother who often advised, “Might as well go ahead and feel sorry for yourself, because no one else is going to.”

Yup, just a waste of time.

Meanwhile, I had come to detest th0se awful pharma commercials where they list all the god-awful side effects of whatever overpriced miracle drug they are trying to flog. Don’t talk to me about goddamned side effects.

Nor could I stomach any more of those uplifting and inspiring stories news shows feel obligated to feature these days about folks who have overcome some debilitating disease.

The commentator would always gush at the conclusion, “Oh, that’s so inspiring.” To which I would grumble, “Aw, fuck you.”

See, when I’m hurting and miserable, I don’t need to be faulted for not founding a university.

On the other hand, I recalled the sage words of a lonely but brilliant man, an outstanding grammarian whom I considered a mentor at a Connecticut newspaper I worked at a century or so ago. In a voice that made you wonder if he gargled with gravel, he’d lament, “No matter how bad things are, no matter how fucked up you might be, some asshole will always come along and say, ‘Well, things could be worse.'” Amen.

I know there are people more afflicted than I; so what? Geesh, don’t turn it into a competition. Is there such a thing as suffer-shaming?

Don’t misunderstand me. I would never diminish another human being’s ordeals or sufferings. Particularly, folks who suffer from clinical depression. I have lost friends to that accursed ailment.

Maybe some writers and artists have been able to channel their suffering into their art. I did attempt to get my mind off my woes by plopping myself in front of a keyboard and managed to eke out one story. But practically speaking, when you’re hurting, and you’re a normal human being, you can’t really think of anything else.

Any advice to the contrary brings me back to some bad old days of my childhood when fat nuns who looked like they never wanted for anything in their lives would tell us poor kids, “Offer your suffering up to God.”

Huh?

As for just being crazy, and not even realizing you’re suffering, I have no experience with that … yet.

So, don’t bother me about suffering artists. And when the storm of slings and arrows blows your way, remember it’s your right as a human being to gripe and get crabby. You’re not obligated to inspire anybody. Piss, moan, and persevere … the art will take care of itself.

About the Author Robert Buckley

Bob’s stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, including multiple editions of Maxim Jakubowski’s Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica.

7 Comments

  1. Totally agree, Bob. I get the whole crabby thing,, but I tend to corral it when I’m at work ’cause if you are, in any way, involved in customer service or service to the public at large,, including being on the front line of phone answering,, management tends to frown on crabbiness. And then there’s the whole thing about colleagues saying, “Hi, how are you?” and what you want to say is, “I really feel like shit today. Let me tell you about it,” and then proceed to vent your litany of woes. They really don’t want to hear it, though. I get that. And I really don’t want to make them feel crappy just because I feel crappy. Or worse, I don’t want to make them feel helpless the way I feel when I can’t do a single thing about what’s going on in someone else’s life, other than listening to their woes. I hate that feeling of helplessness and I don’t want anyone else to feel that way.

    But, yeah, I’ve sorta been where you are, too, and you’re right; if I hadn’t felt depressed, at times, or still feel depressed sometimes,, there would have to be something wrong with me.. I will add, however, that although I didn’t realize it most of my life, I have always been prone to a somewhat chronic, low level of depression. Genetics, probably, but not helped at all by living the first 23 years of my ife with the carrier. Seriously, how would it ever occur to you that you’re “depressed,” if what you’re feeling is all you know?

    So with just that bit of back story, I will say that my arts (which include arts such as drawing, painting, and just making stuff out of other stuff, and writing) always suffered for my suffering. Whenever I have been (or still am) more than just a bit chronically down, I didn’t and don’t feel the slightest impulse to create. I want to wallow. I want watch endless reruns of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and repeatedly watch DVDS, like the entire set of Midsomer Murders episodes. And I want to play Solitaire and Mahjong on my computer while doing that. When I’m depressed, I go out and buy art supplies, so I’ll have plenty of materials for when I’m no longer feeling .depressed and actually feel like making art. Needless to say, my studio up in the loft contains way more art supplies than finished art…or even half-finished art.

    I think the only art that doesn’t suffer when I’m down is my cooking, which is too bad really, because it would be a lot easier to lose 10 – 20 unneeded pounds if I didn’t make such great meals for myself.

    The writing suffers in a different way. I don’t feel like writing fiction, when I’m depressed. I want to write about me and how I’m feeling., but there’s that underlying thing. You know, that thing where you’re reminded by all and sundry that no one wants to listen to someone whine and feel sorry for themselves. Hell, even my dog doesn’t want to hear me whine unless I do it in a cheerful voice. As soon as I start crying, he leaves the room or wants to go outside. Then again, he’s not exactly Lassie. If I fell down the well, Jasper, bless his heart, would probably just look down at me with that, “You’re still holding the ball…why aren’t you throwing the ball?” expression. Highly doubtful that he’d lope over to the neighbour’s place and bark at them till they followed him back here and threw me a rope ladder. (Bear in mind I don’t actually have that kind of well, but it makes for good visuals.)

    I think I only write fiction when there’s enough room in my mind (or my heart if you will) to feel what my characters would and should be feeling if they aren’t depressed. I can’t feel enthusiastic about what they could or would be feeling, when all I’m feeling is sad. Writing (or making any kind of art) requires actual energy….mental energy, emotional energy, and physical energy. If you are worn out in any one or more of those areas, how can you be expected to be creative, too, especially if you’re not used to being as worn out as you are in any one or more of those areas? Don’t forget that when you’re not used to, say, being physically incapable of doing something and you are suddenly deprived of it, you’re going to go through a period where you’re just depressed about not having that ability. If it’s a temporary loss, you can comfort yourself, even while being crabby and/or whiny, with the thought that it is only temporary, but if it’s something that is not temporary, if there is no hope of alleviation of it in the near, or just beyond near, future, no one can blame you for being depressed about that loss of something you’ve always had. You get to mourn that loss however you feel like mourning it. Crabby works.

    I think I should just shut up now, since my response to your post is probably longer than your post, which I thank you for posting, because you took the words right out of my mouth. I’ve just heaped a shitload of other on top of them.

    Hugs.

    Rose (who, at this point really is saying to herself, but only FOR herself, “It could be worse….it could be 85 and humid.”)

    Reply
    • Glad my kvetch could inspire an essay from you, Rose. Speaking of crabs, though, do you think horseshoe crabs are lucky? Hugs back at ya.

      Reply
  2. As long as they’re not on someone’s menu, pretty lucky. So, are you the King Crab?

    Rose (the hermit crab). 😉

    Reply
  3. Jeez, Bob — I knew about some of your health issues, but not about your employer going bust. What a crappy development. I think you have every right to complain – especially when you do it with such gusto and style.

    Sending you love, which I hope helps a little bit….

    Reply
    • Thanks, Lis. I jus hope I got all my bad luck for the year out of the way. Hey, maybe I should go buy a lottery ticket.

      Reply
  4. What a phenomenally appalling year you’ve suffered, and little wonder you have no time or patience for terribleness tournaments, or indeed people jollying you along like Mary Poppins on steroids.

    I can totally see where you’re coming from. I got to a point earlier this year when I couldn’t even watch Beastmaster (an obstacle course elimination show) because every single contestant had a tragic backstory, it seemed. Not that I had a pitiless attitude towards their suffering as such, but I was just in that state of mind where I was cross that I couldn’t summon my multiple hearing aid and infection frustrations and put it “into my art.” Being both cross and unproductive wasn’t my finest hour 😉

    Anyway – excellent blog.

    Reply
    • Thanks much, Tig.

      Reply

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