Killing the Tortured Artist
By Sara Tantlinger
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines poetry as “writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.”
Poetry is about how we experience life, whether the poems are personal or taking on a fictional arc or characters. As I think about some of my favorite classic poets (Edgar Allan Poe, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Anne Sexton), it’s difficult not to remember their suffering, how tragedy dogged their footsteps and tortured their minds. Since their deaths, as along with other writers who suffered immensely, as readers, we tend to sometimes glorify such suffering as the whole “tortured artist” stereotype that I not only hate, but fiercely believe is detrimental to creativity.
Misery loves company, or so we’re told. Though I’d argue misery most likely enjoys isolating us in dark corners instead. As writers and poets, we have an amazing gift where we can exorcise the pain out through our words. It becomes therapeutic. Writing horror, particularly horror poetry, has been a cathartic blessing for me as a way to deal with all the internalized pain, anger, and general frustration I tend to harbor. Again, poetry is about experience and emotions, but I also need to remind myself that one does not have to constantly live the life of a “tortured artist” to write well and be productive.
Since I was thirteen, poetry has been my outlet for the whirlwind of emotions I contain – the ones I probably won’t ever talk about because I have that whole introverted writer with more emotional baggage than you’ll ever know thing going on. Nice, right? (It’s not). And because it’s not, I get livid when these conversations or threads or Facebook posts pop up where it seems people praise the whole idea of WOE IS ME – like they have to be the most miserable person around and declare their melancholy for the world to see – not in a way where they share it to let others know what’s happening or are simply venting or are maybe trying to reach out to others in similar situations. I’m talking about those posts where it becomes a pissing contest among writers to win the almighty golden “I Am the Most Miserable Person” crown – because why? That person has suffered the greatest amount and therefore must write the most raw, creative, heartbreaking stuff?
This is a sick notion. There is a difference between writing as a cathartic exercise versus believing we must be miserable to be good writers of horror or poetry or whatever your artform is. We do not need to invite suffering into our lives in order to be strong writers (no matter your genre), but I think particularly for those of us who write horror, this dangerous idea that you need to live your horror and suffer more than your counterparts sometimes infects its way into minds.
A lot of writers have been through the trenches, I know and understand that intimately. However, the idea of keeping yourself down in those trenches of woe is what perpetuates a dangerous idea – one that could so easily lead down the road to self-destruction. I don’t want my fellow poets and writers to be the next Poe or Plath because I think we deserve better experiences and emotions.
When bad things happen, poetry will always be there for us, like a good friend we can confide our worst thoughts and secrets to. A good friend we can count on to hug us despite the tears and blood pouring from our wounds. When the darkness is poured out, a little bit often stays with us. Bad experiences become moments we remember, lessons we learn, and heartache that shapes our character. However, we have to remember that the light is okay, too. We have to acknowledge happiness and brighter days when they appear because if we only believe tragedy and torture make us good creators, then at the end of the day we may only have our writing and nothing or no one else. That didn’t end well for Hemingway or Plath or Sexton.
I understand pain. I’ve lived it, and continue dealing with it in the ways I know how. I will continue dispensing the emotions I may one day better process into my writing, especially my poetry because it is real, and therapeutic, and it’s something I need to do. I still have a lot of darkness to exorcise, and poetry (especially horror) will always be there, waiting for me to bleed those ghosts onto the page, but I refuse to give into the twisted notion that I have to be miserable and beaten down to write well.
And maybe many of you already know this, but it’s something that has taken me the past decade or so to even try and understand. The poems I needed to write the most, the ones about losing my dad and other family, about complicated friendships and relationships, about the wreckage of love and even love that builds me up, I have written and tucked them into a collection I may one day have the courage to publish, so I understand the need to use poetry as liberation for life’s range of experiences, and I am thankful so many of us can connect to each other through our work.
Write your pain. Share that darkness with others but know that you are more than your pain and your worst days. Know that you do not have to continue to suffer in order to be an amazing storyteller, an amazing poet, and an amazing person.
About Sara Tantlinger
Sara Tantlinger resides outside of Pittsburgh on a hill in the woods. She graduated fromSeton Hill University with a BA in English literature and creative writing, and later with an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. Her love of horror started in middle school where she discovered the Fear Street and Goosebumps books. Some of her favorite writers include Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake, Kate Chopin, Stephen King, Sylvia Plath, Caroline Kepnes, Clive Barker, Gillian Flynn, Richard Siken, Sierra DeMulder, and Catherynne Valente. Sara’s debut poetry collection, Love For Slaughter, was released in 2017 with StrangeHouse Books. Her most recent collection is the Stoker-nominated The Devil’s Dreamland: Poetry Inspired by H.H. Holmes (see our LOHF review here).
When she’s not writing, reading, or researching, Sara enjoys coffee, music, movies, and is prone to over-attachment to fictional characters and cats. She also possesses a collection of sea glass and shark teeth
fossils, which make her want to move to the seaside as soon as possible. She is a member of the SFPA, an active member of the HWA, a poetry editor for the Oddville Press, a writing coach for a small publishing company, and a college instructor.