Escaping the ‘tortured artist’ trap

With today being World Mental Health Day, Editor Jennifer Richards takes a look at the toll being a playwright can have on your mental health, especially in an industry that seems to value the ‘tortured artist’.

The ‘tortured artist’ idea is one that has been around since the Romantics. The idea that out of great pain comes great art. It’s a cyclical process: the writer is both tormented by their work, which they belong to like a prisoner, and lives a tormented life they express through art.

As someone who has had experience with mental illness in the past, even just writing those sentences made me a wince. For someone who is struggling, glamourising mental anguish is destructive, and potentially even dangerous.

Surely it’s possible to be an artist without damaging our mental health? We should want to write because we love it, not because we feel our work is dragging us along by the heels, pushing us into emotional turmoil.

But that’s a lot easier to type out here than put into practice. Because the arts have long fetishized pain. So much so that as a new playwright, I felt like if I was enjoying my writing, I must be doing something wrong. I must feel like a slave to my work.

But that belief isn’t just unhelpful, it’s dangerous. What we should tell ourselves is that writing, like anything, is down to determination and talent. Writing is a passion and (fingers crossed) a job, but it is not something that should be damaging us.

Feeling like a tortured artist isn’t ‘natural’ –  it’s a warning sign

Sometimes we may be frustrated if we can’t finish a scene or figure out what it is that isn’t working in our script, but if writing is taking a toll on our mental health, we mustn’t cast this off as us finally managing to be that ‘tortured artist’.

Instead, if we’re struggling, it’s time to step back from the laptop (or typewriter if we’re feeling old school) and go and ask for help, either from a friend, family member or trained practitioner.

This isn’t to say that plays you write can’t be about pain. The beautiful thing about playwriting is we get to share stories and these can be deeply personal ones that may even require us to focus on an area of our lives we would much rather ignore.

Use your struggle, don’t be owned by it

As someone with a disability, my scripts often draw from this experience. But it is cathartic to write about my pain rather than upsetting, and this difference is really important. Our work should be like our counsellor rather than our jailer.

But, as I said above, the tortured artist idea extends beyond just the belief that we should be a slave to our work. It also suggests that those with mental health conditions are more likely to turn to creative professions. And research does suggest there is some truth in this.

The numbers

A research project published in Nature Neuroscience found in Iceland that creative people were 11% more likely to carry the genetic variation for mental illness, and for people in Sweden and the Netherlands, this rose to 25%.

A 2012 study also found that writers are 120% more prone to suffer from bipolar disorder.

The research makes for a harrowing read but what is much more important is that it does not simply get dismissed as evidence for the ‘tortured artist’.

It instead should be used to highlight how the arts need to focus more on mental health awareness. Particularly because the theatre industry can be especially tough on mental health with the pressure and infrequency of the work, with playwrights often having to be financial unstable due to the low paid nature of the job.

Remember: You’re not alone

Stephanie Silver, who is the Producer for Actor Awareness, recently organised a Scratch Night where the theme was Mental Health. She told me: “Rejection is never nice and this industry is all about being liked, getting five stars, trying to rise above the hundreds of thousands of others chasing (often) the same goal, so it can get you down. My mind often wanders down dark tunnels, but I push myself to stay positive and make goals.”

“I think as an industry we need to keep talking about it, even implement awareness of the industry’s ups and downs into the curriculum at drama school. For a writer, I always think attending a group is great as you can meet like-minded people. What would be nice is more accessible workshops for things like this that don’t cost £40 or more.”

As writing is typically such a solitary task, there are definitely benefits in increasing opportunities of bringing artists together. Writers groups, workshops and courses are all great ways of meeting fellow artists, who are the most likely people to understand the more negative side of the theatre industry.

Contrary to what is expected of writers, it’s important to remember not to completely cut ourselves off. Instead, we should confide in our colleagues and friends when we find things difficult – they’ve probably experienced the exact same thing.

Just like Stephanie is doing, more people need to be talking about mental health in the arts. Because the industry shouldn’t be fetishizing pain or embracing the idea of the ‘tortured artist’.

So, how to move forward?

We should keep writing harrowing stories, and sharing painful tales that will help change the way others think, but we shouldn’t be doing this at the expense of our mental health. The brain is the tool of the writer, and first and foremost, should always be looked after.

If you need more help and don’t know where to go, contact the Samaritans on 116 123

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