by Channler Twyman
She stood on the stage with such vitriol in the midst of so many people. She knew many of them well enough, but I’d argue that made the experience even more nerve-wracking. People tend to underestimate the vulnerability that comes with being an artist of any kind. Imagine baring your soul, your faults, your insecurities, and your mistakes to a room full of people with the hope that at least one person might possibly be able to relate to your pain or joy. Spoken word poetry is not something for the faint of heart, as I learn every time I get in front of a crowd of people. However, some poets, including myself, get involved with the craft thinking poetry, especially spoken word, is merely about putting your trauma on display for the whole world to revel in.
The belief is understandable. I’d argue that sometimes the most notable and interesting stories are ones where the speaker or characters endure extremely traumatic circumstances. People love drama, especially when it is not happening to them. Society has thrived off the “tortured artist” stereotype for centuries, so it makes sense that many artists feel the need to bare everything to their audience. Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain, Beethoven, Michael Jackson are all artists who were adored by so many because of the pain they shared through their art, glorified their pain even. While I agree that the best art does come from each individual person’s lived experience which does include their trauma, I vehemently disagree with the idea that we must constantly subject ourselves to suffering for the sake of making “good” art.
I think it is very telling of our society that we are willing to accept and encourage the suffering of others just, so we can consume the product of their suffering for our own personal enjoyment. It is quite sickening if you observe our culture objectively. Instead of imploring our world-renowned artists to seek out help and recover from their own personal traumas, we expect them to continue to produce “great” art, and consciously or subconsciously we become implicit in creating a culture where we value the product over the person.
I do not necessarily believe that thought-provoking art can come without suffering of any kind. As cliché as it sounds, life is suffering. One cannot live without experiencing any sort of trauma, and it is overcoming these traumatic experiences that I believe great art can be fostered. I have had so many talks with friends and colleagues about “pimping out” our trauma. Marginalized people are especially susceptible to falling into the trap of reliving our trauma over and over again just, so we can enter these so called “elite” artist spaces. Not just within the realm of art, but within higher academia, the STEM field, and many other professional environments. We have to prove that we have endured enough to gain access to the spaces that will give economic and societal mobility.
It makes no plausible sense to me that people will stand in front of a crowd of hundreds of people and force themselves to relive their most traumatic experiences for the hope that people will consider their art “valid.” I completely disagree with these notions. I believe we can do better. As artists, we deserve better. Any art we create is valid, whether or not what we have created was influenced by things that happened to us a day ago or five years ago. Creators of all kinds need to distance themselves from their work at some point. Rest and space is healthy and allows you to truly reflect on the experiences you have lived through, instead of bleeding out the most sensitive parts of you hoping that people you don’t even know will consider your work credible.
Cherish your art. Cherish the work that goes into making your art. Understand that your well-being and the way you think about yourself is way more valuable than what you produce or what other people think of what you produce. Create in your own time and share what you feel ready to share. Never force it. Making art of any kind and sharing it to one person alone is already such a huge feat.
When the girl I mentioned earlier finished her poem, I was awestruck. It felt so emotional and heartbreaking. When I asked her afterwards where she found the courage to share it, she told me that it had been many years since the events that the poem described had occurred and before she could finally write about it. Having the time to reflect on what had happened to her and having time to process it gave her so much more clarity when she finally set pen to paper. I took those words to heart, and I hope you all do too.
— Channler Twyman is a Staff Writer from South Georgia. ICYMI: Last time on “I See You,” Channler wrote on the subject of queer characters deserving happy endings. Read it here.