Solitude and the Artistic Temperament


Pass through the darkness. Embrace the dark nights of your soul as they have arrived to tell you something.


We’ve got to talk about the dark side for a moment. If you’ve got a handful of guiding artists that you look to for inspiration, you’re likely to have a few that succumbed to the flip-side of massive inspiration: massive depression. The literary and artistic cannon is filled with tragic artists. Let’s recognize the pattern and align ourselves with the survivors.

Even as we lose lovers, parents, siblings, we have the ability to translate our suffering into expressions of love and beauty.

Understanding the highs and lows of my creative life has been an interesting journey. I have traveled both high and low roads. I’ve sat on mountaintops and done vision quests. I’ve spent countless hours in talk therapy and counseling of many types. If read deeply of the artists who spoke to the blackness of my own journey and tried to learn from their ultimate loss. My list is long, but the top-of-mind artists who continue to inspire me, in spite of their demise (via alcohol, suicide, or mental illness) are Jack Kerouac, Sylvia Plath, Elliot Smith, David Foster Wallace, Anne Sexton. And in my own personal life, my older sister, who was creating at the top of her game, took her life when some of the details of reality became too hard to bear.

But bear it we must. That’s the ticket, that’s the key.

  • Perseverance in the face of great odds. (You will probably not achieve the recognition or fame you desire with your art.)
  • Mental stability in the heat of creative passion. (I still have to dial my own flights of fantasy back when I’m in the throes of a passionate project.)
  • Emotional fortitude even while dipping into the darkness that often illuminates or transforms our work. (Embrace the darkness, don’t be embraced by it.)
  • Financial plans and career maps. (If you’re not making money, you’re going to starve. That’s a path heading in the wrong direction.)
  • Joyful rebalancing. (The joy in your life is your energy. Find ways to rebalance, or self-regulate, your attitude, CONSTANTLY.)

We can learn a lot from the deep passion of these creative souls. Even if a few of them dipped too far into the dark night of the soul, you will eventually have to deal with your own inner demons. We’ve all got them.

Life throws us all types of curveballs. And life is messy. You know some of the tragedies that are ahead: the death of a parent, a beloved pet, the loss of a primary relationship. And there are many of the dark curves that you cannot see, but that will affect you and throw you off your joyous course for a time. It is my artistic temperament that allows me to absorb and be burnished by these events, and in the polishing and blasting of the sadness and fear, I believe, I am transformed.

Life is that way: messy, painful, unexplainable. The artist merely tries to deal with these uncertainties and losses by telling their own version of Dante’s Inferno.

The death of my father when I was 21, is an event that I will never fully get over. But the transformation of that event into stories, songs, and perhaps even a novel at some point, is one of the ways I have found my own strength in not following his will “why aren’t you going to medical school” or his demise as he used more alcohol to distract him from the wreckage of his alcoholic life. I tumbled in the rock-polishing machine for most of my twenties, I railed and ranted in my thirties, and here in my 50’s I’m happy to report that I’m drug and disease free and of relatively sound mind and body.

I say relatively, only to be dramatic. No one is actually 100% healthy. We’ve all got hurt places, little secrets, jealousies, resentments, and vendettas we’d like to see paid in-full. And each of us had a choice to walk the higher road above our own petty grievances, or to fall victim to the angry path through our perceived injustices. The injustices are all around us. Our personal stories are not that unique until we tell them through our art. And in that exposure we might find relief, or at least camaraderie.

Some of the work of these previous sojourners can provide some comfort. Some of them may be too close for comfort. Either way, you will also go through dark times and it is your artistic translation of these horrific events into art that provides 1. comfort for you; 2. comfort for others; 3 something of lasting beauty and value. Dwelling in the darkness for a time might serve you well. We can certainly agree that running from your emotional messiness is not an option, the anger, fear, sadness WILL catch up with you.

It’s okay to be dark. It’s okay to require professional help. It’s okay to struggle for a time with your own personal demons. The world outside our souls is often troublesome, even in the best of times. In my past, when things got really hard, however, it was my art that kept me pointed upward and onward, even when I lacked any inspiration or motivation to do much more than noodle on a poem or pluck a few strings on my guitar.

Pass through the darkness. Embrace the dark nights of your soul as they have arrived to tell you something, to transform your life into something more beautiful. Please don’t lose yourself in the darkness. Too many wonderful and talented artists have chosen the most unromantic ways to take their last curtain calls. Suicide is never romantic or epic. The loss of so many beautiful artists illuminates our lack of understanding and support for the highs and lows of our creative people. Be creative. Be dark. But stay alive and tell us about your journey.

Even as we lose lovers, parents, siblings, we have the ability to translate our suffering into expressions of love and beauty. Listen to your dark whisperings, ignoring them will shut down an entire cathedral of creativity and aspiration that can speak to all of us at some point in our lives. Life is that way: messy, painful, unexplainable. The artist merely tries to deal with these uncertainties and losses by telling their own version of Dante’s Inferno.


John McElhenney
@jmacofearth (also seen on Google+: jmacofearth)
permalink: http://uber.la/2014/09/letters-to-a-young-artist/

Now Available in Print and eBook Format!
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Introduction: Letters to a Young Artist
Letter One: Letters to a Young Artist in the Digital Age – Your Personal Creative Cloud
Letter Two: Vocation and Passion: Letters to a Young Creative Artist
Letter Three: Sing At the Top of Your Range
Letter Four: Focus Yourself: Cutting Away the Distractions
Letter Five: Creative Energy: Finding and Maintaining Your Daily Juice
Letter Six: Cutting Deep to Find Your Genius
Letter Seven: Perseverance and Habit: This Creative Morning
Letter Eight: Stop Talking: Do The Work, Don’t Talk About Doing It
Letter Nine: Get Into Your Mess: Cleaning Can Be a Distraction
Letter Ten: Opening to the Poetic In Your Life: Poetic Listening
Letter Eleven: Paralyzed By Opportunity: The Firehose of Ideas
Letter Twelve: Survive & Thrive: First Find Your Congregation Within
Letter Thirteen: Solitude and the Artistic Temperament
Letter Fourteen: Pointing Your Arrow: The Artist’s Way to Happiness
Letter Fifteen: The Creative Impulse: Easy to Contain, Easier to Kill
Letter Sixteen: Artistic Depression: There’s Nothing Romantic About It
Letter Seventeen: The Portable Artist: Creativity On-the-go!
Letter Eighteen: What Will You Make Your Life About?
Coda: Love Money Ambition: Finding Your Sweet Spot and Career
Appendix: Writing a Plan for Your Future – A Career Path Template (Downloadable)

supportive references:

survival references:

image: dante’s inferno, kyle boganwright, creative commons usage (artist’s work is for sale)

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