How do you transform your pain through art
December 19, 2012 11:48 AM   Subscribe

Do you express your pain through art? How do you do it?

Several people have told me to transform my personal tragedies into artistic expression. But how do you do this?

I have some difficult experiences I'd like to transform through art, but I'm not really sure what that means on a practical level. I'd love to hear how others have used art as a way to transform tragedy, how happy you are with the finished product, how this plays a role in your life.


- Do you paint, draw, write, do performance art for this reason? What about it is cathartic for you?

- How is the process reflected in the finished product? Are there certain themes that show up? Or do you do a Norman Rockwell scene that just happens to be part of your process of getting over something truly terrible?

- Do you listen/watch/read art to inspire you? How do you get into it, without collapsing in pain or making it too self-indulgent?

- If you've been to an art therapist, what was it like? What did they do and how do you incorporate it into your life?

- How much formal training do you have and what difference did that make to the cathartic experience?

(I'm less interested in famous examples, as I know of many. I'm more curious about the process and what it means to you personally.)

Thank you!
posted by carolinaherrera to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I write and make music about things very personal. I wouldn't describe either of those experiences as cathartic, though, and in truth I don't understand artists who do. I don't feel 'better' when I'm done writing about a tragedy or making a song about something difficult. I can't write when I'm really upset. I need to be in a pretty calm place to be able to actually reflect on those difficult experiences to write about them.

So it's not cathartic at all. It's just a way for me to recognize and communicate what I'm feeling, and not a type of therapy which makes me feel better at the end of it.
posted by Jairus at 11:54 AM on December 19, 2012

Like Jairus, I use my personal issues in my art (god, that sounds pretentious. "My art." I write stories because they're fun) only after I have moved past the immediate emotional impact. I think it does help, in that it gives me a layer of distance and objectivity - one of the characters in the novel I'm working on is based on someone I had a huge, inappropriate, and problematic crush on, and fictionalizing her helps me see what I was drawn to and what I was romanticizing without actually involving the real person in my process.

I can only talk about storytelling, though - I don't have any clue how other artistic forms would process emotion. It may be helpful for you to mention what your art actually is, because I'm not sure you'll get specifics you can use from forms you don't practice.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:01 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Observing, generally, that this is the kind of thing that you may have to explore on your own as well as hearing other people's feedback, because what works for you is not going to work for me, and vice versa. But you knew that, I imagine...

Writing is what worked for me -- that's the medium that I generally work in best anyway, it's just how my brain works. (Plus, I suck at drawing/painting. Photography is not bad, but writing is what I'm more likely to do.)

What I personally find cathartic about writing things out is - a lot of times the emotions swirling around in there are sort of amoeboid and nebulous, and the mere act of trying to think of words to describe what I'm trying to say forces me to analyze it and think about it in a way that I previously hadn't been able to. Sometimes that extra thought helps me process what I'm feeling, and gives me insight I hadn't had yet; sometimes it just solidifies What I Believe Is Wrong.

Also, having all that nebulous energy outside my head and down on makes my subconscious think "okay, that sturm und drang is now in a safe place so I don't have to hang on to it any more." That also helps.

Never been to an art therapist, and I don't necessarily read anything in order to get inspired to do theraputic art (I do sometimes read other writing to inspire me for purely creative art, but that's different). However, I do often seek out music to listen to as an alternative to self-expression - singing along with a song that seems to capture what I want to say also helps. (Or, if I'm angry, it's a lot of loud noise and getting to make a lot of loud noise is in itself cathartic.)

Hope this helps...
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:02 PM on December 19, 2012

I write poems in terrible states of pain sometimes, and yes, I find that they alleviate it considerably.

Sometimes the act of expression is a release valve that lets some of the psychic pain or tension in your body let go for a little while.

It's like mind yoga. (Meditation is also like mind yoga, but we are talking about art here so I'll stick to that.)

You can take that for what it's worth. I am an academic but I have only been trained to write poems in one course during my undergraduate career. I have never been to an art therapist.
posted by araisingirl at 12:49 PM on December 19, 2012

As an added note, I find that often the emotion that moved me to write becomes transformed by the act of writing. That is, in trying to describe it, I can't exactly--or maybe it is that I can't feel it the same way any more to channel it. And sometimes, in the process of writing, I discover that what I'm really feeling is actually x or y, and sometimes I can even convert that into joy upon having made something as a container for that moment. It makes me feel like I've honored myself in a sense because I took the time to work through it.
posted by araisingirl at 12:52 PM on December 19, 2012

I draw a lot. I am an incredibly visual person, and I'll visualize a lot of things. Sometimes I will visualize whatever termoil I'm in, but the imagery is such that I won't want to draw it because that means facing those thoughts. So, When I do, the act is hard to push through, but after I pull it off I feel that thing is "out" of myself and onto a page in physical form.

It's a bit like throwing up, actually.
posted by hellojed at 1:15 PM on December 19, 2012

For answers to your question you might study the lives of artists who have had a hard time but produced enduring work. Look into Edvard Munch and how his life produced "The Scream" or the lives of the Brontë sisters and how they came up with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Even J.R.R. Tolkien's grim experiences in World War I became transformed into the passages where Frodo and Sam struggle through the Dead Marshes and across Mordor.

Your life is a crucible, the art you make won't necessarily be a literal account of your experience, but you will know where the connections are.
posted by zadcat at 1:25 PM on December 19, 2012

This may be neither here nor there, but I read somewhere about a study that analyzed different activities people engage in to process difficult emotions, like yoga, writing, journaling, etc. It said that when people wrote at length about, e.g. a bad break up, it actually made them feel worse than they felt before they sat down to write. I think the upshot was that poring over the thoughts and writing them down was a form of rumination, which is a depressive behavior.

I put a lot of energy into making music (playing piano) and I think one of the complications with using art as an outlet, is that making compelling art involves a kind of tension between the cool, detached, decision-making part of the brain, and the pure-emotion channel. For me, when the pure-emotion part takes over without that balance, I end up producing something that is a bit overwrought and when I look at it later, I find that what I created doesn't match my perception of how it felt as I was creating it (if that makes sense?). I think creating something quality requires this slight level of detachment, which allows you to see what you are making as it really is.

That said, in my experience when I'm going through something really hard, there's nothing that can soothe the pain like listening to the latest song I've been obsessing over like 206 times, on repeat. Brian Wilson and Brian Eno have gotten me through some very hard times. Also, the confidence that comes from working diligently to create something you are proud of produces a huge self esteem boost, I think.
posted by mermily at 6:28 PM on December 19, 2012

- Do you paint, draw, write, do performance art for this reason? What about it is cathartic for you?

Amateur poetry. It started about three months ago. I didn't even realise I was qualified to do such a thing. It started off late at night last summer, in the midst of procrastinating on office work I had to do for my internship (I was seriously overworked. Think: 9am-2am). I didn't realise it would be cathartic until I completed my first ever poem which I'm proud of (this doesn't happen very often at all, especially to one who is constantly struggling with language anxiety and general feelings of mediocrity). I have continued ever since and found that whenever the inner torment strikes, the impulse to produce something shortly accompanies it. I'd forget about everything around me and just.. focus on getting bits of what I feel out.. feels like pre/free-writing at first before it begins to take shape. I'm not close to being perfect, but I really enjoy it. Never thought such a thing would happen. I otherwise used to do random manga sketches (which I stopped at 15). I sing too.

- How is the process reflected in the finished product? Are there certain themes that show up? Or do you do a Norman Rockwell scene that just happens to be part of your process of getting over something truly terrible?

Angst, loneliness, living in between countries/cultures, growing up, losing friends, introversion, existentialism, spirituality. With regards to singing, I'd pull up specific distant memories that relate to the lyrics (that or my brain will have associated something with it already).

- Do you listen/watch/read art to inspire you? How do you get into it, without collapsing in pain or making it too self-indulgent?

Umm.. I've had background music inspire my poems a few time, but it's really inadvertent, if anything. That is, I happen to have been listening to my playlist when the impulse strikes. But yes, they do sometimes help steer the wheel (if the song happens to mesh well with my mood) and keep me going. With regards to singing, I tend to separate 'performance' based artists with contemplative ones. Not saying they never conflate, but with the advent of mass-viewer competency shows, it's become increasingly harder to connect with artists who are always cited by contestants as inspiration (so I'd ultimately listen to them for odd bits of technique).

The impulse to express one's self needs to be strong enough, and the (background) inspiration should not overshadow it. You should not be in devastated state (although it seemed to work for Trent Reznor). Everything artistic is self-indulgent one way or another. Pain/experience shouldn't be qualified based on that. That train of thought is unhelpful in general as it inhibits freedom to just break free and go.

- If you've been to an art therapist, what was it like? What did they do and how do you incorporate it into your life?

Never but have always wanted to. To be honest, the idea of an art therapist seems intimidating compared to, say, music therapist (because I have a background in singing and playing instruments). As much as I'd like to, I'd probably be way too self-conscious to ever see a visual art therapist.

- How much formal training do you have and what difference did that make to the cathartic experience?

Until I was 14, I used to hover between distaste and indifference in regard to poetry/writing/language in general. I was loosely raised as a bilingual but was a late bloomer in terms of language competency/interest. I did (half of) middle school onwards in pure English. I only started appreciating poetry after being introduced to William Blake who left an indelible mark on me. Aside from that, we did Rime of Ancient Mariner in high school which was okay I suppose.. I wish we could've chosen Robert Browning instead. On my own, I've read some Christina Rossetti (who I don't think I could ever emulate), Katharine Mansfield whom I absolutely love. I discovered T. S. Eliot's "The Dry Salvages" very recently which blew my mind. I read chapters off of a translated Punjabi mystic poetry collection which can be slightly impenetrable but is inspiring nonetheless. I like the way Tristan Tzara challenges poetic conventions. Antonio Machado is also fun to read. I'm sure if I had received 'formal training', I'd be more confident and possibly accomplished? Who knows, as the same could be said for anyone, really. I don't there's necessarily a correlation between formal training and cathartic experience though (if anything, one would probably feel more regimented?). I mean, the impulse to express myself through an artistic creation seems greater than any concern for formal training of lackthereof (which I suppose is a good thing?!). Ultimately though, I don't know where it'll lead. For now I'm satisfied enough in having an outlet such as this one (my first outlet being singing). But I've never been able to direct pain in this manner until now. I use to splatter all over the place (not sure if I'm making sense) which didn't allow for any kind of "transformation" at all.

Been singing since I was a wee babe. Had intermittent training.. still can't sight-read very well (but to hell with it). Formal training's always felt really stifling, unnecessarily complicated and always seemed to rip the pure joy and passion I had for singing. That being said, I went through a period of time where I stopped enjoying everything I used to do (singing especially). So coupling that with formal training made for a disaster (even though I did complete a graded assessment). Point being, I was too young to have known which direction I'd have liked to take in terms of singing (my voice is suited to classical, folk and pop, but the former really took precedence where I went to school). I also became frustrated with the seemingly mechanical ways in which I'd approach my pieces.. I never really felt much for them. In general, I'm pretty much sorted now (a couple of painful life experiences later) and am thinking of getting back into a much more focused, self-tailored training.
posted by thespiritroom at 9:57 PM on December 19, 2012

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