On Creativity and Sorrow

With the stress of university accumulating and the beckoning reminder of arriving adulthood, we linger.

My interviewees: Sam, a fashion communications major (also jokingly known as Miranda Priestly's better half), and Natalie, a fashion design major and bridal shop intern extraordinaire who, without a doubt, invented the art of sewing.

Sam Cass, Natalie Gregor, and I. Three art school survivors hiding from sub-zero temperatures and untouched school work. Though my own biases seep in as I designate an art school as something to be survived, there is something to say about collecting hundreds of growing teens and telling them to create. Or, rather, to not just create anything, but something meaningful. And contrary to what one may assume about an art school, meaning can be defined and it has a grade.

For me, something meaningful meant something separate from myself.

More than once, Sam and Natalie described their arts educations, as the foundation for the way they choose to create and think about art. As students in their respective programs, Sam and Natalie often spoke about how they were taught to consume and create art and be conceptual thinkers. They were told that groundbreaking, intelligent creations would become the marker of success in their industries.

“I was so pushed to do things that challenged social norms - doing something political was not taboo,” Sam reflects.

At her high school, students were urged to be complex creators. With every piece of work produced, there needed to be an idea behind it, a dialogue it would be contributing to and if not, sparking.

In university, it isn't so different.

“Here you're learning to navigate your industry. You have to build relationships with brands. Your image is so important,” Sam says. And that image must be one that projects a vast, abstract, yet marketable frame of mind that can sell an idea constructed through high-level and interesting forms.

“You were always supposed to be doing things that were kind of unexpected,” Natalie adds.

Is this natural, or even productive? As creatives, many of us work within fields that rely upon and pull greatly from our experiences and our own personal and often vulnerable emotions. To set high expectations on such emotionally draining work can be dangerous, especially when you begin to hone this craft as early on as Sam, Natalie and I did.

As Natalie describes, expecting complexity and depth from art is “especially restricting when you take a bunch of 14-year-olds and you put them in a class and you're like, ‘Alright, let's pump out some deep shit.’” Natalie believes that this, in turn, forces students to dive into projects that may not reflect what they want to express.

“I was always like ‘I don't have anything worth contributing,’” Sam says. “My experiences are not profound or significant enough to share or for people to be receptive to.”

One subject we addressed was “the when” -- when we choose to create art, in whatever form this may be.

“From my perspective, art comes a lot more naturally when I am upset because it's a good outlet and I feel like people, when they're upset, relate more to art,” Natalie says. “We search for the songs that make you feel like someone understands and I feel like you need to be a lot more intentional when you're not sad. I get impatient.”

For me, I do not know how to write when I’m happy. Or at least, I don’t know if beautiful things can come out of joy -- the type of beauty that means something to people, or one that holds weight. And this thought terrifies me, because if my sadness is what defines me as a writer and as an artist, what does that mean for my healing?

A beautiful mess. How many burnt-out artists have been characterized this way? Their trauma collected like trophies of decaying roses. Fatigue and exhaustion sexualized, their existences shapeshifted into romanticized enigmas. Is it conscious? The way I monetize my pain and sell it for cheap acknowledgments of depth and importance?

I don’t think so.

One moment that truly began to help shape my own perspective on this issue was when Sam discussed why sometimes it’s more difficult to write about the good and not the bad.

“I think it's really hard to sort of access those [happy] emotions when you're not in them and also when you're in them you're so consumed. If I'm really not doing okay and I write about that, it's very personal,” she says. “When you just put that out there for everyone to read and consume then you also aren't leaving any of it for yourself and when it is that vulnerable, I have trouble wanting to keep it to myself or feeling like I deserve to keep it to myself versus thinking about maybe if I could share this ... I would get a certain level of respect.”

It is interesting to think about the work we create as artists and what is more celebrated and valued versus what becomes lost. Many artists hold the destructive insecurity that so much of our work ‘is just noise,’ as Natalie framed it.

We work incredibly hard to create content that has value not to ourselves but to consumers. The scale of importance heavily relies on the work being revealing or building off of often traumatic and exposed emotions. But I also don’t think it’s that simple; that society demands our hearts on a stake and that we, the reluctant yet defenseless artists, give it to them.

I write about dark, uncomfortable, dreary things because I want people to know that those emotions that can exist in the light. I write sad things because I want to feel connected. As much as the 16-year-old version of myself wanted to be veiled, to be watched, and detached, I believe she also wanted, and still wants, to be accepted into the collection of all the sad but fantastic and immortalized artists of the world -- all stamped in time by the legacy of their sorrows held and validated by thousands of others also in search of relief.

To share pain is a part of the human experience. It is our right to tear through all the layers and get down deep into what we are feeling. In fact, I think that creating a buoy of refuge for someone else out of the sadness you once held is a radical act.

It isn’t easier to write about pain, but is it more fulfilling than my happiness? This I do not know.

But, I think that Sam makes an important point when she says, “I think that some of the best things I’ve written or the most interesting things I’ve written are both very very sad and very happy at the same time. They recognize both and they're finding this medium.”