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The Tormented Artist

by on December 20, 2013


Today I’m lucky enough to have blagged a rare piece of writing from my friend Sam Dogra. Sam writes paranormal fantasy, in between blowing up most of civilisation on her gaming consoles, and performing her duties as VC of The Alliance of Worldbuilders, one of the on line writing groups I am proud to belong to. She’s also a talented artist, (although I suspect she prefers to inflict the torment on others). Her first novel is already on Amazon, and the second instalment is about to be released – so readers will not have to wait for the sequel!

Over to you, Sam…

This post talks about an issue that I’m sure plagues pretty much everyone who’s ever had a creative thought of any kind- what I’ve unofficially termed ‘Tormented Artist Syndrome’. I’ll briefly go through what it is, why it arises, and ask whether it’s harmful or helpful.

‘It’s never good enough!’
So, what is Tormented Artist Syndrome? Well, it’s very nicely summed up with this illustration:

(taken from here)

And this song, by Natasha Beddingfield ‘These Words’:

Basically, whatever idea or image you have in your head, it never comes close to putting it into physical form. Hence the ‘Tormented Artist’- we are constantly ‘tormented’ by falling short of our initial goal. This is most obvious with artists using visual mediums, but it also applies to writers who feel they can’t get scenes right, actors who feel their performance isn’t quite ‘there’, or musicians who can’t figure out lyrics or chords.

This isn’t anything new. Virgil, the famous Roman author of the epic Aenied, hated his work, and wanted it all burned, never to be seen by the public (thankfully that never happened, and we’re left with a great piece of Latin literature!), and I’m sure there have been plenty of other examples since.

Personally, I’ve suffered from this for a long time. As both a writer and a digital artist, I find it affects my artwork most. I can never quite get down what I ‘see’, and it can be extremely frustrating. This isn’t helped by several factors, such as my lack of time to practice, my jealousy over other artists I consider much more talented (never mind that some are professionals who do it for a living, rather than a hobby like me), and being a perfectionist at the best of times.

So why should this feeling of ‘torment’ be so common? We are often our own worst critics, but why do artists especially seem to measure themselves against an unattainable benchmark? And if others don’t see the flaws we do, is it worth the anguish?

In favour of the Tormented Artist Syndrome is that it provides strong motivation to improve. The more we try to capture the image in our mind’s eye, the closer we’ll get to it. This is, of course, one of the many facets of creativity- to communicate to others what we hold in our imagination. It also holds us in check so we don’t become arrogant or think we’re better than we are, or worse, better than others doing similar work.

Against the syndrome, however, is that it can be crippling. If we are constantly comparing ourselves to an impossible ideal, it can only be damaging to our confidence and self-esteem. Comparing ourselves to others is no better, either, as we all have difference talents, experiences and mastery of differing things, and we’re all at different stages.

So how can we stop the inner Tormented Artist taking over?

The first step, cliched as it sounds, is to keep trying and never give up. Every failure is an opportunity to learn from mistakes and move forward. So you tried to draw a dragon and it looked like a diseased camel with scales- look into why it didn’t work and try again. Hold the ideal goal in your head, but don’t be disheartened when it doesn’t work the first time.

The second is not to look around you for benchmarks. Comparing your self-taught Photoshop skills to someone who does professional magazine covers for a living isn’t going to show you how to progress. By all means, use it as inspiration to improve, but again, don’t throw it all in because your 10th attempt is still miles away. The 10, 000 hour theory holds for most technical skills, so keep going! And thanks to the internet, there’s a wealth of information out there to help you hone your craft, so use it.

The Tormented Artist Syndrome exists for a reason. Listen to it when you need to, but don’t let it rule you. If you can tease out its benefits and reject its downsides, it’ll be a vital tool for all your creative endeavours.

Have you ever had to wrestle down your Tormented Artist in order to finish a project? Tell me!

Here’s the link to The Binding:

Sadly, although I suffer torments for my art, no one has recently wrestled me down. Sigh.
Next week it’s back to my inane mutterings: I hope you have enjoyed this brief series of guest posts, and I hope there will be more in the new year.

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  1. Rebecca Douglass permalink

    Thanks! I needed that…I am starting to accept that doubt never goes away. And an outside opinion can help a lot in deciding if the doubt is well-founded or should go into the locked box along with the regret that my looks will never be a perfect 10.

    • riddled with self doubt, eh Rebecca? It gets to us all, all of the time, really. The only comfort is in knowing that you are not alone in the fear.

      • Rebecca Douglass permalink

        Oh, yeah! There are so many ways to doubt oneself. . . How do I doubt me? Let me count the ways. . .

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