Our culture has this trope of the long-suffering tortured artist. There’s this idea that creativity comes from strife and is fueled by addiction and misery. I don’t say things like this often, but I want that idea to die.
First, it’s not true. Sure, there are many wonderful artists who struggled with or even lost their lives or careers to addiction, but there are also many, such as Anne Lamott, Stephen King, or the musician, Riopy, who went into recovery and thrived professionally after. Second, the idea is dangerous because it suggests that creative living is off limits to people who want to have a happy life.
I get upset about both issues because I experienced the opposite of what the trope claims. I experienced an extreme uptick in my creativity after limiting alcohol. In addition, the expansion of my creative efforts has resulted in more happiness, not more suffering.
This year I hit a major life milestone: I wrote and published my first book. I didn’t quite sell as many copies as Stephen King (yet) and I admit that I didn’t say anything nearly so perfect as Anne Lamott did in Bird by Bird. But, by god, I wrote a damn book. I wrote a book while practicing law, raising kids, managing a blog, and surviving two job changes in my household at the same time. I wrote a book even though I could have easily continued to think about it, as I had done for many years before.
Like the trope, this book had its origins in some suffering. It came from my own struggles with mental health and it was inspired by some of the darkest moments in my life. In addition, so many steps that led to me writing the book came out of the angst, grief, and upheaval of the pandemic. Oddly, one of those steps was the realization that I had relied too much on alcohol during the initial months of social distancing.
This is where the trope of the suffering and addicted artist explodes. Other than my initial bout with shame and denial, I didn’t have a torturous experience addressing my alcohol usage. Instead, I implemented some reasonable limits and supports, noticed an improvement, felt good, so kept going. At no point in the decision-making process did I consider limiting drinking because I wanted to be “more productive.”
That’s exactly what happened though. No, I didn’t get more productive in the breakneck way. I didn’t sacrifice sleep, or fun, or time away from my computer. Instead, I found a few extra hours here and there at night and on weekends where I felt like writing.
Think about it. When do most of us drink? Nights and weekends. When do most lawyers have free time to write and pursue personal hobbies or goals? You got it. Nights and weekends. When I started limiting how frequently I drank, I created more pockets of time in which I felt energetic and clear-minded enough to write. And, when things calmed down a bit and I had longer stretches, I could reliably bank a few thousand words at a time until I had a book.
Perhaps this story isn’t as interesting as the long-suffering artist, but it’s a whole lot more hopeful and in more ways than one. It suggests that steps to major life goals might, for any of us, be just around the corner. It suggests that doing the everyday basics to take care of oneself may be one way to reach the highest heights.
And here’s the best thing. Maybe I was a bit of a suffering artist in the early days of the pandemic. Maybe I used alcohol somewhat to avoid the suffering I believed I couldn’t handle. When I decided to make a change, the suffering didn’t swallow me up. Instead, it forced me to grow and make space for something new. It’s easy to get caught up in our habits or the tropes of identity, but it’s possible to break out of them. Even better, it feels really good when you do.
Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.
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