Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Life or Art?

At a dance show last weekend, one of the pieces listed a few outside sources as inspiration. One was a story about Marcel Proust and a friend, who had quarreled over life and art: specifically, about whether an artist should be out and about, living life, or sequestered and dedicating himself to the craft. You can guess which side of the argument Proust, one of history’s most famous recluses, took. I can also imagine the friend’s parting thoughts as he huffed out: “You want to be alone? See if I ever visit you again!” I didn’t keep the playbill and was unable to find the specifics for this story, but that was the gist of it.
This always comes up, doesn’t it? What an artist should and shouldn’t be doing. Modern manifestations include various articles about how much social media time is too much for a writer, the classification given to some “celebrity authors”—those jetsetters who never turn down a conference or speaking engagement, warnings about the necessity to get your ass in the chair and write, every day, lest the cogs of your creative engine rust up and jam.

But it also brings to mind the oft-repeated instruction: “Write what you know.” How are you supposed to know about anything if you’re not living? Proust had a lot of opinions about a lot of things, most of them seemingly catered, as opinions are, to his own life. One of his common themes was that suffering is the root of all great art. He extolled the virtues of suffering and advised that when it comes, you should give yourself over to it completely. Distilling sorrow was like an exercise to him:
"When we endeavour to extract the general qualities from our sorrow and to write about it, we are somewhat consoled...Thinking in terms of generalities and writing comprise for the writer a healthful and indispensable function, the fulfilling of which brings happiness, as do for a man of a physical type exercise, sweating and the bath."
Suffering put you in touch with yourself, he argued, and made death seem like a release. And most importantly, it fueled the very best art.

“Works of art, like artesian wells, mount higher in proportion as the suffering has more deeply pierced the heart.”

What do you think? Does a writer need to suffer to write something great, or is empathy enough? How narrow would your writing be if you only wrote of your own experiences? Would it be enough? Where do you find your best inspiration—inside yourself, out in the world, or some combination of both?


  1. My thoughts on this interesting subject: Some people have thin membranes between the personal and the collective psyche, tuning not just into other minds, but also into the energy of animals, plants, and even matter. Those who have difficulties upholding a personal boundary are often categorise as mentally unstable. Their often remarkable insights are sadly undervalued. The ideal membrane is malleable, and many sensitive and inspirational artists fall into this category.

  2. I need art to live. Some things in life hit me so hard that I must create. The urge to create is so strong that I can do nothing else. The act of creating relieves me of the suffering by containing it. After the suffering is contained, I can go live again with my heart wide open.
    Empathy is definitely enough.


"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka