The independent news organization of Duke University

Decidedly un-tortured



I’m in a group chat of writers called “sadboi hours.” At Project Arts, two writers were given awards for being the most angsty. While it’s easy to joke about a writer’s tendency to be existential and self-deprecating, these jokes are grounded in a very real pattern. Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf; all tortured geniuses. 

As a person who wants to write and be happy, this association between creativity and suffering has always bothered me. In some ways, it makes sense. It’s the people who are neurotic, sensitive, and curious to the point of self-destruction that can write about how all people have ulterior motives, a five-year long unrequited love, and a girl watching a woman catch on fire out of sheer curiosity ("The Catcher in the Rye," "The Great Gatsby," "Sula.") While writing doesn’t have to focus on the negative, the best books are about complicated problems. It’s the Anna Karenina principle: happiness is a delicate combination of factors, and the absence of even one of these factors creates a unique and interesting form of sadness, which is worth writing about. The sheer variety and nuance to negative emotions makes them more compelling to read and write about. 

I wish I could say that I was immune to this tortured writer phenomenon, but I’ve had my fair share of angst. When I read "The Catcher in the Rye," I related to the cynical and neurotic Holden Caulfield so much that I didn’t realize that he was meant to be an unreliable narrator. I’ve never written a poem about something positive. 

My own experience has also shown me that it’s not just that many creatives have self-destructive tendencies, but that the writing process itself is hard. George Orwell compared writing a book to having a demon run after you. I hated that I knew what he was talking about. The crippling thing about art is that you can recognize good art instantaneously but even bad art can take years to create; I’ve heavily criticized a story before realizing that I couldn’t write anything nearly as good. Writing is also unpredictable and nonlinear. Sometimes I write a poem I’m proud of in five minutes and sometimes I spend ten minutes crafting a sentence that I end up deleting. 

Blogger Maria Popova said, “Without their art, all of these [tortured] artists would have suffered more.” But I don’t think that’s true. Writing is just a tool. It can be used to excuse self-destructive tendencies, to put oneself in dangerous situations just to feel something that could be in a novel someday. It can be used to ruminate over problems, to circle around sadness like a vulture just for that one beautiful sentence. I once wrote for two hours about a petty argument with a friend, only to find myself more upset than I was before. If I tried to make my life a work of art, I would probably be a better writer. But my life would also be much more dramatic and depressing: I would probably also be living in Berlin with a group of artists where I would fall in love with someone new every ten days and die at 24 of some overdose. 

While writing has the potential to encourage self-destructive tendencies, it can also be a powerful tool for reflection. It’s impossible to wrestle with thousands of denotations and connotations without coming away with a better understanding. Sometimes I don’t know how I feel about something until I write about it. Writing has made me a better thinker and helped me figure out what’s important. As long as I remember that writing is a supplement to life, and not life itself, I can understand my struggles without miring myself in them.  

In the same vein, the writing process doesn’t have to be demonic. It may never be enjoyable in the way that a donut is enjoyable, but it can be satisfying in the way a good workout or finishing a long assignment can be. I used to be paralyzed by the idea that every word I put out into the world has to be perfect, but I’ve realized that any piece I create will make me a better writer. Since I tend to write about personal things, criticisms of my work can feel like personal attacks. But it’s a strangely comforting thought that no one cares about my writing as much as I do, that even if they don’t like my work they’ll probably forget about it. While I believe writing is important, taking it less seriously has made me more willing to accept the inevitable failure and criticism that comes with the creative process. 

We’re all writing stories about ourselves in our heads. I choose for my story to be about an untortured writer. 

Sarah Xu is a Trinity first-year. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays.


Share and discuss “Decidedly un-tortured” on social media.