January 22, 2018

Beware the Tortured Artist

I was reading some interesting thoughts on motivation the other day on Regarding Design. These two snippets were particularly interesting:

For any who call themselves “creatives,” a need for inspiration would signal a very bad thing…

What the real issue is “motivation.” The very word by definition means “to move.”

I think this is a really important distinction. Particularly for folks out there who want desperately to get off their butts and do something meaningful, but who lack the “motivation”.

There’s this concept of the “tortured artist” that we love to romanticize in popular culture– the self destructive, other-worldly artist that’s so full of genius they can’t lick a postage stamp, but in fits of god-inspired passion, create beauty beyond the comprehension of mortals.

While Vincent VanGogh and Daniel Johnston make great stories, they are not great role models. They are, for the most part, tragic figures that were able to create something beautiful despite immense challenges.

Was cutting off your ear really necessary?

Was cutting off your ear really necessary?

But still, we glamorize this vision of the artist and spend our days watching Dr. Phil and playing Team Fortress while we wait upon the finger of God to touch us with “inspiration”.

The truth is, we have it backwards. Work always precedes inspiration (we can go into a  definition of “work” later).

And I’m not the only one saying this. Veteran creators like Steven Pressfield , Stephen King , and Twyla Tharp, all write about the “muses” in mythical, almost religious tones, but they all affirm that the inspiration comes only after you’ve laid your sacrifice on the altar. And what is your sacrifice? It’s doing your work, whatever it is, every day. Cory Doctorow does it, So does Michael Chabon:

In 2000, Chabon told The New York Times that he kept a strict schedule, writing from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day, Sunday through Thursday.[13] He tries to write 1,000 words a day. Commenting on the rigidity of his routine, Chabon said, “There have been plenty of self-destructive rebel-angel novelists over the years, but writing is about getting your work done and getting your work done every day. If you want to write novels, they take a long time, and they’re big, and they have a lot of words in them….[T]he best environment, at least for me, is a very stable, structured kind of life.”[9]

So, now the question is how do they do it. That’s where motivation comes in, but that’s the topic for another post…


  1. It’s just like that quote – I forget exactly how it goes – Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

  2. This is a great post. I’m glad to have read it today. I’m no artist, but have of late been intimately acquainted with a lack of motivation and am trying to remedy it. What you said here, and your own example of hard work, is inspiring. I hope this comment doesn’t embarrass you. It shouldn’t.

    • Thanks Joy. Motivation has certainly been a beast I’ve wrestled with for a good stretch of time. I’ll make a post later this week about what things work for me. Hopefully there’ll be something worthwhile in there.

  3. Thanks! That was very informational, I just bookmarked your url.

  4. Have you read “The Writing Life” by Annie Dillard? I pretty much recommend anything by her, but that one’s especially relevant. It’s a short embarrassing book about writing as she describes it. She won a Pulitzer when she was 29 for her book of personal narratives and observations while living in western Virginia, called Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

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