There are several archetypical ‘artist’ types, including but not limited to the free-spirited nature-lover, the lush, and everyone’s favorite, the tortured artist. Let’s talk about that last one.
A lot of good writing has come from people in pain, but that doesn’t mean you have to live an horrific life to be a great artist. I wouldn’t recommend a headlong leap into a pit of acid-spitting spike-beasts (they’re expensive to breed and store), and I wouldn’t recommend developing an alcohol problem (as many writers have). However, if you do find yourself in a position to choose between pain and serenity, I’d like to argue against serenity.
Serenity gets a good wrap. Peace, balance, and tranquility are all parts of what many religions call Goodness. It’s the end of the line, the apex, the ultimate goal. Serenity is the receipt you get after spending time and effort getting there. Peace is ‘good,’ but it is boring.
Peace yields no stories. Stories are in the struggle.
One of my biggest challenges when I started writing was portraying gritty, ugly things. My characters were paragons of virtue. I want them to be beautiful, intelligent, respectable, and always right. My main character, as she is now, is graceful and formal. When I look at earlier drafts, she was a snarling, bone-crunching feral monster. She changed as I changed, and the writing reflects that change of perspective. In my heart, I know she’s something in between. Peace, serenity and balance deny drama. If I let her stay graceful and formal, she’ll be boring. How would a graceful person respond to being tipped off balance during an important meeting? How would a formal person respond to being surrounded by people of a different class and no interest in wealth? In short, what would she do outside of her comfort zone?
The question we’re really asking here is how does she struggle, and how does she grow. That struggle is what makes someone real. The more real and resonant they are, the more they have to put up with the nonsense we face every day, the more their story will matter to complete strangers.
It’s important for you, as a writer, to take risks. Summon your courage. Be willing to risk getting angry or humiliated. Be willing to let your characters make mistakes and suffer. Let your heroes be cruel. Let your villains be admirable. All experience, from stillness to chaos, will be useful to you. Embrace the horrific. Use it well.
“We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.”
— Kenji Miyazawa
“The lesson of pain is why we stayed, why we adapted, why we’ve endured so long. Without it, no living thing, aware of itself, can be called whole.”
— Timmain, “In All But Blood” Wendy & Richard Pini.