Starving in a Garret

Even the Wikipedia entry defining "garret" has a picture of a poor poet.

Even the Wikipedia entry defining “garret” has a picture of a poor poet.

I recently had a chat with a friend about writing. He said that he hadn’t been writing lately, and he found the situation really chafing, to the point that he was beyond frustrated and feared he would never write again. He then added that a medical concern had been affecting him and had only recently been addressed, and a member of his household who had just moved out had been causing additional stress. This on top of a full-time day job and family responsibilities including a small child.

I tried to be reassuring, telling him that these kinds of stresses take a lot out of you and don’t leave much energy for creative work. It’s not surprising at all that a person can find it difficult to write in such conditions, when it’s all you can do keep your head above water and meet your basic needs and those of your family. Yet creative people tend to be extremely self-critical and unforgiving when they come up short of their own artistic expectations. Why?

Is it just because of the romanticized figure of the artist starving in the proverbial you-know-where? Somewhere we got this idea that real artists must suffer for their art, whether from Van Gogh’s asceticism (depicted in an image on this page, which gives us the painting I used above yet again), or from Percy Shelley making himself out to be a misunderstood genius, or from modern autobiographical novelists saying they don’t care if they alienate their whole families with their semi-fictional and unflattering portrayals, they have to stay true to their art! (I can’t confirm the author or book in question now, but I vaguely remember it being The Prince of Tides.) Even a local furniture store used to run a television ad for their annual sale on paintings and called it the “Starving Artists Sale.” Artists are supposed to be outcasts and loners, they’re supposed to suffer, and this suffering is supposed to get transmuted into art of the highest degree.

I haven’t tracked how far back this figure goes, but I have to assume it’s in response to more commercial artists, those who had the good luck to be in the employ of wealthy patrons – or today, those writers who hit the bestsellers list. It is really all sour grapes? It is really just about elevating your opinion of yourself by clinging to the belief that your work is superior to commercial work because you really suffered to produce it? People definitely come up with some outlandish beliefs in the attempt to reassure themselves or protect themselves from what they perceive as a threat.

None of this really helps my frustrated friend, though (whom I am not trying to call irrational, let’s be clear). So let’s go with Maslow: human beings need to satisfy some base-level physical needs before they can move up to the more intellectual ones. If you’re not in the best health or you have a lot of drama going on in your environment, you’re not getting those level-two safety needs met, so you can’t go forward to things like esteem and self-actualization, which is where the creative impulse functions for many people. Those misunderstood geniuses probably substituted art and writing for something lower in the hierarchy, since they found themselves deficient in the realms of family and community, or even the safety level in the case of those writers who penned their great works while locked up in Soviet prisons and the like.

But those of us ordinary humans who have to put food on the table and pay our bills and take care of our families need to get all these things done before we can divert energy to creative things. It makes no biological or psychological sense to expect anything else from ourselves. So take care of what you need to take care of, and save the Van Gogh behavior for the next crazy character you write about.