I can remember several instances in my life when I had to buy an emergency notebook in the name of self-care — in high school when I thought my friend was about to lose her life; last August when my parents announced their plans to divorce; two weeks ago when the most significant romantic relationship I’ve ever been in came to an end.
In each of these moments, I remember feeling so forlorn and frantic that I could no longer make sense of my own thoughts or emotions. It was like wrestling with shadows. The only way I know how to process such states of futility is through writing. Every time I pick up a pen and spill my neuroses onto the page, I am left with an inexplicable sense of hollow calm and emotional peace. I always come out of it feeling like I understand myself and my situation a little better.
It also seems that I do my most poignant, creative writing in these times of vulnerability, when writing becomes a survival tactic more than a chore and my feelings are in their rawest form. Last fall, one of my columns addressed a question I have always been interested in: Does pain precede all great art? In considering the countless artistic behemoths who have led lives of melancholy and misfortune, it seems to be a self-evident truth that pain is a prerequisite for genius and that what tortures artists is also what makes them great.
One of my favorite novels, “The Bell Jar,” sprung from the dark recesses of the mind of writer and poet Sylvia Plath, who notoriously gassed herself in the oven after a slew of suicide attempts throughout her tragically short life. In grappling with her divorce from Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo gave the world “Two Fridas,” a self-portrait of her dichotomous personalities which she later admitted were depictions of her different emotions as her marriage disintegrated. Even the Taj Mahal, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World and an imposing architectural feat, is a mausoleum commissioned by a Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in his late third wife’s memory. Time and time again, pain has yielded beauty that becomes a part of our culture. (Dare I mention any one of Taylor Swift’s gut-wrenching yet empowering break-up anthems?)
In many ways, art is the answer to the age-old queries about human existence and reasons for suffering. We look at art — more often than not the byproduct of someone else’s heartbreak — and find a piece of ourselves in it. In the process, we find solace in sharing another’s pain and start to fathom what it means to be alive and to have feelings and to not be alone in these experiences. Without suffering, we wouldn’t have art; and without art, suffering would be fruitless.
I’ve also come to realize that more than being a repository for pain, art is, for myself and many great artists from history, a vehicle for healing. I like to imagine Vincent van Gogh applying the final brushstroke of his “Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear,” and enjoying a moment of serenity — perhaps even feeling at peace with his decision to cut off his own ear in an attempt to keep a lover, realizing that for all the torment he endured he had now created something beautiful to show for it.
Even the medical community is recognizing the positive impact the arts can have on patients’ spiritual well-being and health. From drawing to dance and writing to music, studies have found that the arts empower patients to fulfill the basic human drive to create and imbue them with a newfound sense of possibility. Creative expression is astronomically conducive to healing because it allows people to regain a sense of wholeness — both as individuals and as part of the greater world.
I have the same cathartic and restorative experience when journaling and, to a lesser and rarer extent, drawing and painting. In times of personal crisis, I am shocked by what comes out of me artistically. Retrospectively, as I reread the work I produced during melancholies past, I am impressed by my own ability for introspection and depth within my own psyche. I find that practicing creativity is essential to not only staying occupied but also persevering onward.
Even as I near the end of this column, I feel calm and hopeful given that my thoughts and circumstances are more sensical to me now than they were when I started writing. I am comforted by the knowledge that some of the greatest masterpieces in art history were borne out of heartbreak and that my own spiritual well-being is in my control — all I have to do is put pencil to paper and write my heart out.
Catherine Yang is a junior majoring in communication. She is also the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “State of the Art,” runs every other Tuesday.