No pain, no gain, the saying goes. That’s certainly true when talking about building muscles. It’s also a sound philosophy as you battle through the ups and downs of life. However, when said pain is (even temporarily) debilitating, it stops things dead in their tracks. Having injured my back years ago in a car accident, I have had ups and downs associated with pain and even mobility.
You don’t realize that you use your back for everything: sitting, standing, even breathing… When my back gives out, I am fairly useless. Shortly after I had finished work on a screenplay collaboration two weeks ago, I reached for my morning cup of coffee. As I lifted the coffee pot to pour I was frozen in a cascading series of back spasms. I gasped, replaced the pot and held on to the counter top. I knew if I went to my knees I’d never get back up! I rode out the spasms and gingerly moved about for the next week.
Now I am once again mostly pain-free and back at the keyboard and other activities associated with a normal life. But this got me to thinking about pain and pain management in regards to the creative life. How does pain affect the artist? First off, there are different kinds of pain. There is physical pain such as I’ve just described, and then there is emotional pain. Ah yes, the emotional pain of an artist can be just as debilitating as physical pain.
After my back injury I continued acting, writing, and directing but found shorter limits on these abilities than I had even known before. Acting on stage was sacrificed because the show must go on, but if I had a back spasm, I knew I would be incapable of performing. Even if I could go on stage, the fear of forgetting my lines due to the fog of pain frightened me even more. So I focused on film and television acting since each take is a new chance to get it right. My passion as an actor suffered, I think in retrospect, because I have missed the challenge and thrill of playing a character throughout a play from beginning to end each night in front of a new audience. The controlled world of acting for the camera is far different than I had originally imagined.
My writing ebbs and flows due to the normal creative cycles of inspiration that plague any writer, but in addition to these ups and downs—burst of creativity and droughts bereft of worthy thoughts—I have had to contend with my physical pain. It hasn’t affected my writing as obviously as my acting (in my estimation) but I still wonder how much the tip of the spear has been blunted.
Directing a documentary such as Radio Changed America as opposed to a dramatic feature film such as Daybreak has been one way that I have adapted to the limits of my body. Documentaries move at a more controlled pace over a longer period of time than does a feature film, which is similar to stage acting in that all creative energy is intensely focused on one period of time (I’m thinking of the actual shooting of the feature) and it is all or nothing. What you get is what you get. With my documentary I shoot some interviews, retreat to the office to work on the script or conduct more research, raise some more money and repeat the cycle.
Pain management for my back injury consists of daily stretching and core strengthening exercises. For the most part this works and keeps me active, happy and creative. The occasional back spasm due to stress, overuse, or freak mishap such as grabbing a coffee pot at five in the morning, is to be expected and properly dealt with. So, perhaps, it should be the same method for emotional pain.
Without getting all self-analytical, suffice it to say that most people (and certainly artists I have known) come complete with their own set of emotional baggage. This pain can be transitory as in the rejection of a screenplay or failed audition, or it can be a dark companion that stalks us from the deep, still waters or our memory. It can be related to our creative life or it can be part of our regular daily “real” life: family, friends, money, health, and so on. Let’s face it, some of these pains forever alter us, such as the death of a loved one. There is no going back, there is no reset button. Emotional pain can stop us in our tracks just as effectively—perhaps even more effectively—than physical pain.
Pain management for emotional pain could, perhaps, be similar to that of physical pain. Daily exercises to strengthen the core of our psyche, as an example. It could mean therapy, it could be the support of family and friends, and it could just be time. Time does not heal all wounds, but it does put distance between us and the source of the pain.
I’ve often said that no one escapes childhood unscathed. As children we learn lessons in life firsthand that are unique to us, that affect us profoundly even without us knowing about it. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s and lived with us for a couple years while I was growing up. My world was completely reframed. I saw and heard things that have stayed with me to this very day. These memories still have nerve endings; they can still make my heart race much as they did when the events occurred in front of my eyes.
Actors, and other artists, routinely make use of these memories and moods in order to do our job: to make art. Emotions are common denominators to us: love, hate, fear, jealousy, insecurity, etc. We tap into these memories, both happy and sad, to use as fuel to create our characters, our tapestry designed to evoke some reaction from the audience. Sometimes we need our pain. It’s part of who we are. Until it becomes debilitating, that is. When that pain stops us from creating, from enjoying life, and from sharing our gifts with others (and we all have gifts to share, by the way), then it must be addressed and it must be healed.
If I’ve learned one thing in life as a creative person, it’s that whether its physical or emotional pain, it takes time and commitment to get better. Never cede control, never surrender. A temporary retreat may be in order, asking the advice of others may be necessary, but never abdicate your rightto chart your own course through the pain.
Pain creates art. Pain destroys art.
There’s a fine line there somewhere…
I’m just saying…