Pain is not redeemed by art: grief, writing, & creative practice.

I’ve been a writer all my life, and a visual artist, too. When I was in private practice, I used creative tools with my clients, drawing from Jungian traditions, from global mythology, from creative arts of all kinds. From sand-tray to self-inquiry, my territory was the creative inner world.

And then my love drowned in front of me on an otherwise ordinary day.

Tell me, what use is it to rearrange mythic figures on a board when life has exploded that way? Where is the relevance of self-inquiry in the face of such reeling pain? A paintbrush is not going to solve anything.  

Because I had both art and writing as parts of my professional life before I became widowed, I heard several times how lucky I was: lucky because I could write and make art from my experience. Because I could turn this death around and make it a gift. As though this loss, Matt’s sudden death, were redeemed somehow by the act of writing about it or by making art from it.

As though our life, his life, was a fair trade for whatever work came out of it.

There’s a deep cultural presumption that creating something out of grief somehow makes it all even out in the end. That your deepest call is to transform your grief into a work of art that touches others. That when you do that, when you turn to creative expression in the depths of pain, you are, in fact, healing your grief. Creativity is a way to transform pain. The results of your creativity, if they’re good enough, can help others transform their pain. It all works out.

But the truth is, there is no fair trade. Whatever you might create in your pain, out of your pain, no matter how beautiful or useful it might be, it will never erase your loss. It will never make it all okay, in the end or otherwise.

So this is tricky territory.

Many of us are at home with art and words. There is a call to write, to get the words down, to process and to witness our own lives. I think the human mind naturally goes to creative expression: it’s the way we’re built. We are story-telling creatures.

It’s when that creative practice is pitched as a cure for grief, or as a necessary shattering in order to be of use, that I bristle and start snarling.

Without that call to express great pain, we wouldn’t have images from Käthe Kollwitz. We wouldn’t have Picasso’s Guernica. We wouldn’t get to feel our own pain reflected in the words of C.S. Lewis, or Cheryl Strayed, or Claire Bidwell-Smith, or Emily Rapp. Our own expressions, and those of others, give us some comfort, here in the depths of loss. We take comfort from the company of our own kind, the people living deep loss alongside us, throughout time.

But it’s not a trade, and it’s not a cure.

Pain is not redeemed by art.

And yet, we make art anyway.

Writing the story of what was is no fair trade for not being allowed to continue living what was.

And yet, we write anyway.

The truth is, pain, like love, needs expression. Some of us use words. Some paint. Some build, some invent, some serve. We are story-telling creatures.

Creative expression is part of me. It’s part of you. It’s in all of us.

That you make something beautiful and useful out of your pain, whether for yourself or others, is a wonderful thing. It’s a healing thing. But it’s not a prescription, and it won’t fix anything.

And we create anyway.