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The Artist as Sadomasochist, or Why the Bleep Is Creating So Hard?

Writing and making art is hard. Everyone knows that.

  • Some people (mostly men) say that creating is hard because there is an external force called Resistance trying to stop us from making anything new. And that we must gird our loins and do battle against Resistance by sheer force of will. These men tell us to kick ass and fight to the death and ship at all costs.
  • Other people (mostly women) say that creating is hard because we have Monsters inside us trying to stop us from doing anything scary. And that we must take it easy and commune with our Monsters and help them feel safe. These women tell us to meditate and go for walks and journal.

I’ve tried both of these approaches over the years.

I have taped Knickerbocker’s Law above my desk (“Apply ass to chair”). I have hauled myself up at 5 am only to collapse on the guest bed in my writing studio. I have slaved away on a novel much longer than I should have because, by God, I wasn’t going to wimp out and let Resistance beat me.

I have also written morning pages and taken artist’s dates. I have produced shitty first drafts that lived up to their name. I have made boxes that represent my many inner voices.

Neither of these approaches worked for me in the long term. The first one was exhausting, and the second one felt like a lot of busy work. Those were important periods I had to go through, but now I have another theory.

I believe that artists love to be in control and love to feel deeply. And that we try to fulfill those needs by forcing ourselves to suffer.

I’m calling this impulse sadomasochism, by which I mean “taking pleasure in inflicting pain on oneself and in feeling that pain.”

  • You feel drawn to write or make something, and instead of doing so, you hold yourself back and take perverse enjoyment in the build-up of pressure.
  • You stay committed to some activity you hate, even volunteering for more, and feel the slow burn whenever you do it.
  • You slog away on a creative project that isn’t working or force yourself to write or make art when you don’t feel good, and get negative pleasure from the struggle.

You get a sense of power over yourself from doing these things ~ you are choosing and creating your own experience. And you get intense feelings flooding you ~ resentment, anger, fatigue, desperation ~ which remind you that you are ALIVE.

Your unrequited longing to create becomes eroticized, and denying yourself what you really want is the way that you “get off” emotionally.

So many of the messages we get in the creative world reinforce this impulse for sadomasochism. We are continually told how hard it is to write and make art.

And we don’t recognize where we are intentionally making it hard for ourselves because it hurts so good. We are addicted to the drama and we stir it up on purpose when there’s not enough.

The good news is that we can meet our needs for control and deep feelings in a much more positive way. We can put our self-discipline to use saying No to things that don’t serve our art. We can feel alive by experiencing love, joy, and flow.

I strongly contest the truism that we can’t create without pain and suffering.

That’s not to say that writing and making art is easy. But it shouldn’t have to hurt. Check out my post at Scoutie Girl, Making Friends With Resistance, to hear more about the healthy challenges inherent in creating.

And if you are determined to leave your sadomasochism behind and connect with the bliss of creating, I invite you to sign up on my mailing list to read an introductory series of letters on my creative mantra: Make Art. Be Kind. Have Fun.

We talk creative personalities, competing identities, and what gives you the right to be a creator (hint: you don’t have to do anything to earn it).

Okay, now I want to hear what you think. Does what I’ve said about intentional suffering ring true for you?


{ 15 comments… add one }

  • Eve Kotyk March 17, 2011, 6:14 pm

    And might I just add, that you don’t have to have a mental illness to be creative. The movie, The Black Swan was beautifully acted, but I hate that it suggests we have to be crazy to do good work.

    I’m sorry I missed your telecast.

    • Aakash Bhanja April 3, 2016, 12:27 pm

      I feel I can’t see the point of creating even though that’s all I truly feel good while doing. But I won’t do it, and let the pressure build..
      on you’ll get my predicament, in my head right now art is just symbolic of reality and can never be anything but, passive representation, but reality is out there. Even though others might not see my work or anyone’s work like that for the matter. Its my perception of things right now I can’t get over.
      Its funny in a sad way. The artist doesn’t believe in art.

  • Ann McMahon March 22, 2011, 8:11 pm

    I dont know about sadomasochism. but I’ve definitely got a great big crush on the idea of being a writer. Can’t wait to hear your call!

  • Laureen Marchand March 22, 2011, 11:59 pm

    I’m not sure. Problems with identity, too-internalized underappreciation, fear, lots of less-than-perfect learned habits which make me feel really anxious at the thought of unlearning them, exhaustion, imperfect commitment – maybe all of the above. A need to punish myself as well? Doesn’t feel like me at all.

    • Alison March 23, 2011, 5:23 pm

      Good to know, Laureen. I think this is a new way of looking at the difficulties around creating, so it may not hit home for everyone.

      I also hear the pain of the problems that you DID list. And I really believe you can leave those behind as you identify more and more with your artist self. I hope the call tonight will move you further in that direction.

    • Peace August 19, 2017, 4:21 am

      Infiltration of fear of loss, rspcoally rejection leads to emotional and creative scupperment…for me anyway. Take Dada for e.g. way too caught up in surrealist thoughts to be concerned of realism; my pain always more painful always somewhat different to others…no, the same outwardly only internalized differenlty. Art suffered for my pain not the other way around. Our produce is just examples of the idealism of thought through concept visuals. Depression is the name I give it to be viewed as normal. Mass market churned out art is where I suffer the most…there is no beauty for me on the front cover of vougue to appease another mass market audience thriving on aesthetics. Beauty to me is truly feeling the pain of unmet needs…not pushing and compounding them…that is what stifles creativity. From happiness to sadness in the blink of an eye and not a thing to do with conditions such as bipolar etc as i have none of these. I want to feel in all its colours not just to function and churn out another portrait on the wall of a non anstrat thinking phillistine.
      No intent of hurting anyone but myself..glad to find this site

      Thank you

  • Lisa Fong March 26, 2013, 1:52 pm

    Interesting theory. I often ask myself why I want to struggle constantly. As an art student who is creating work that is representational in a world of conceptual art, I am already at a disadvantage when everyone deem my work as less than or irrelevant. Yet, I convince myself that what I’m doing is more authentic and I refuse to do what everyone else is doing. Individuality. Isn’t that art is about? And to think that all the struggles and hard work does not guarantee any kind of pay off. This is making me feel inadequate and at times worthless but I refuse to give up and will most likely go through this whole process forever because I love to create. There is something about art that makes me want to sacrifice everything including my sanity just to have a chance to create.

  • sandra June 19, 2015, 1:10 pm

    This is so like me, it hurts to read… I’m tearing myself down and I’m so tired of it all :'(

  • Shelly September 2, 2015, 3:16 pm

    Just found this website and can’t believe how on target the ideas are. I’m looking forward to joining the list and seeing what I can do about my insecurity, anxiety, excuses, resentment, laziness, etc., etc., etc.

  • Nancy January 10, 2016, 7:32 pm

    I have never read anything like this before – and it sounds totally like me!
    I also have: written morning pages, taken Artist Dates, repeated endless complex affirmations, taken art, writing and music lessons, gone back to school more than once, set up work space, bought supplies etc etc. It seems the better I do at classes, the faster I quit it – only to feel unhappy and unfulfilled.
    I have to say I am becoming despondent, not to mention angry at myself. But am very pleased to read your words – it definitely describes me!
    Looking forward to reading and learning more..

  • Clive H. February 22, 2016, 10:32 am

    thank you for this

  • Debbi Owen January 2, 2017, 7:33 pm

    I also had a hard (painful) time reading this, as it so accurately describes me.

  • Alexandra Lumme March 29, 2017, 10:20 am

    I’ve never read something like this before. I thought I was alone… I write music, Sing, play music but I always seem to WANT to drift away when I’m quiet even though i KNOW i feel better and more acconplished when I create and learn. This sounds so much like me… If i go a day without Singing I’m so ashamed of myself … And people have called me a perfectionist, but that’s not it. I just have this resistance. Drive? Fright? Music’s the best thing in my life though….

  • R June 3, 2017, 4:38 pm

    But isn’t it fear too? I don’t know I feel like I can relate to this, but at the same time I recognize that my pain isn’t necessarily ONLY derived from what I do to myself. I think I would be pretty naive if I thought others couldn’t hurt me too…

    I’m not the most artistic person and I don’t even seen my writing as art. The wall I have up is as much to protect myself as it is to hurt myself. I’m not sure if it’s a choice anymore, though. I must be a real drama queen!

  • Andrea June 27, 2017, 5:36 am

    It does ring true to me! It is 100% me haha! I am so happy someone has taken the time to notice this, think about it, write about it and has shared it with me 😀 thank you tons! I have been writing for 4 years now and just reading this article has changed the sadomasochism in me a bit no doubt. Love

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