Creative Blocks (Part 1): You Can’t Make ‘Paintings’ Without ‘Pain’

There is arguably no fresco more famous than that which adorns the Sistine Chapel. And yet, in a poem written by Michelangelo, the painter of that iconic ceiling, we bear witness to the unraveling of the artist – an unraveling written during, and seemingly brought on as a result of, that very painting.  True to form, Michelangelo describes his suffering in poetic detail: his body twisted, contorted, “bent taut” with a “goiter from the torture” of positioning himself in the way necessary to paint the ceiling.  While it is his physical body that bears the (literal) weight of his placement, it is his mind that feels the pain – that suffers – as he says, “because I’m stuck like this my thoughts are crazy, perfidious tripe”.  In the poem (that reads as a letter to Giovanni Da Pistoia) we hear of the treacherous and deceitful ideas that have taken up residence in his supine body – that eat away at his mind until he declares – in the final line, “I am not a painter”.  It is a shocking confession of self-doubt and creative despair.

Thank God.

Why? Because we’re talking about Michelangelo here – one of the most famous painters ever (and now I have to add ‘poet’ to his résumé) and guess what?  As he was painting Adam touching the hand of God (an image so famous it is etched in our collective unconscious and adorns everything from wine labels to IPhone skins) he was not ‘at one’ with the artistic spirit, enchanted by the muses, letting the creative flow use him like a medium.  No, at least part of the time, dude was laying up on the scaffolding in that most famous church in Italy thinking ‘this job sucks’ and ‘I am a big fat phony’.

And I’m so glad.  Because I think these things too.

I mean, not about Michelangelo obviously, but about my own work/endeavors/projects. And as it turns out (hold your breath here) – we. all. do.  And when I say all I mean all – every last one of us.

If you’re not convinced of this by myself or Michelangelo (man, how often have I written that sentence?) hop on over to your favorite search engine and type in ‘writers block’ or ‘creative constipation’ (I’m not even kidding about that one) and you’ll get literally millions of hits.  The quotes and articles and websites and blogs (what? nothing…) that search will bring you are not from would-be authors or artists.   Nope it’s the most familiar and famous, the most successful opining on how hard it is to write or make art or do anything – with some familiar tropes, two of the most common being:

1. the ‘tortured artist’ that Herman Hesse speaks to when he says “I know that today just as at any time in the past, every true poem or painting, every measure of true music is paid for with life, with suffering and blood.” Okay Herman, tone it down a little bit – the whole ‘paid for with life’ and blood thing is a little creepy coming from the guy who brought us Siddhartha. But I get it.


2. the hyperbole and a half that writers pull off so well – especially when speaking of their own artistic medium – like when Jessamyn West says that “Writing is so difficult that I often feel that writers, having had their hell on earth, will escape all punishment hereafter.” Fingers crossed!  But seriously, this is a good example of the woe-is-me/‘I have the hardest job on earth’ kind of meditation on writing that is really common.

Rarely are these two themes that separate, usually they team up, strengthening their power – and their ability to sap yours – by working together.  Like many, I am of two minds about these themes – half the time I’m like ‘alright there Mr. Tortured Writer, back it up, it’s not like you’re mopping floors or working outdoor manual labor jobs…in Texas…in August.’  Writing is fun, and anyone who gets to do it for their job is blessed and privileged.  I can get really high-horsey about this (trust me).  And then it comes time for me to actually write something, and suddenly I’m beset by those creative demons that whisper (or more often yell) at me that I can’t write, which becomes the rationale for why I shouldn’t write, and then becomes the excuse for why I don’t write.  It’s a fabulous cycle.

But what I’ve learned is that it is also a common cycle.  In fact, any bookstore with a section on writing is often filled to the brim with a plethora of books by so many authors that all promise (what amounts to) variations on the same theme, which is essentially the following: If you want to write, write.  The only thing standing in your way is you and your anxiety that what you’ll produce isn’t good enough (or good at all).  So, what these books and blogs and articles tell you, essentially, is that every writer struggles with their craft but ultimately the only way to write is to write through those blocks/demons/anxieties or whatever term a given author uses to explain this universal experience.

Now, rarely will a cultural anthropologist describe something as a universal experience – so don’t take this lightly.  If you are a writer, an artist, a ‘creative’, heck – if you have anything you want to do but are scared, listen up:  Anybody who has ever gone out on a limb has questioned a) the ability of that limb to hold him and b) his ability to hold onto that little limb.  That’s good.  If you don’t ask those questions you are likely to be the kind of person who checks to see if the water is boiling by putting your fingers in the pot.  It’s good to be cautious and it’s good to ask questions, but you’ve also got – at some point – to think less and do more.

Nike, it turns out, had it right all along – just do it.

But if you’d rather not take inspiration from a corporate ad campaign, listen to John Gregory Dunne when he says, “[t]he professional guts a book through…in full knowledge that what he is doing is not very good.  Not to work is to exhibit a failure of nerve, and a failure of nerve is the best definition I know for writer’s block.” If that’s too long of a mantra, how about this one from the awesome Lisa Papa, “Just make art, and good will take care of itself.”

Still not convinced?  Then take it from the ultimate tortured artist (the one, the only) Mr. Vincent Van Gogh:

“If you hear a voice within you saying: you are no painter, then paint by all means, lad, and that voice will be silenced, but only by working.”

Just do yourself a favor and skip the self-flagellation and, for goodness sake, the self-mutilation.

But if inspirational quotes aren’t your thing then let’s think through this issue in a different way.  Let’s go back to the Italian Renaissance, back to that famous fresco and imagine a different outcome.  What if Michelangelo had had the thought he describes in his poem: “I am in the wrong place – I am not a painter” and had actually listened to it?  What if he thought it and was like ‘okay, I’m done’ and packed up his supplies, untwisted his body, climbed down off the scaffolding and just…gone home.  What would we have missed out on?

The reality, of course, is that we have that amazing piece of art precisely because he didn’t listen to those voices.  He didn’t succumb to that anxiety, to those demons.  Instead he finished the darn painting and then took his self-doubt and turned it into a poem.  Damn, Michelangelo.  Now that’s raising the bar – or, in this case, the ceiling.

Up next: Creative Blocks Part Two: On Process versus Product…(stay tuned)