I have tendonitis. What that feel like? Imagine if all the muscles in your right shoulder, while still contained within your skin, deflated, then got covered in hot sauce, then sat on your bones. Imagine a bug stretching from your shoulder to a quarter of a way down your arm, that bites you if you disturb its slumber, be it by reaching for a high shelf or lying down on your side. Imagine a bully’s punch, a bully’s Indian burn, and a bully calling you a slur.
Now imagine trying to get writing done during all this.
It is possible: the proof is in this blog post. And this isn’t the first time I’ve written in bad conditions. I have something called cervical stenosis in my neck, which is basically a nerve pinching in my bones. This popped up two years ago, aka one of the worst years of my life. Back then, I knew I had depression, but I didn’t learn good meditation techniques or how to sooth my inner critic yet. To keep my spirits high during that time, I ran a lot and I wrote a lot. Stenosis took away both those crutches, and without writing and running, my soul tripped and fell into a mud pit as deep as Death Valley. If my descriptions of tendonitis seemed hyperbolic and overdramatic to you, let me assure you that I measured that mud pit back in 2014, and dug inside to find dropped classes, fruitless therapies, and a hospitalization to keep me from acting on my pounding, welcoming suicidal thoughts. Stenosis fucked me up.
Yet here I am, still writing. Armed with new therapy tools and old experience, I can handle tendonitis without thinking “This is your fate, as you grow older, if you don’t end your life now.” I still need to learn how to take care of pain without ignoring it until it’s bad enough to drive me to the ER. But I handled it in a mature manner this time, and I’m glad for it.
So that’s the answer, right? Ignoring pain is bad, so put down the pen for a couple of days until you’re better. But I put down the pen for a couple of weeks in 2014, and that journey put me in the hospital. Should I have gritted my teeth and written, even if doing so sets a fire in my bones?
What did I actually do dealing with an injury this time? I took two days off. That seemed like a fair balance, and it’ll be one I’ll use again in the future. If I’m taking a break from writing, with little regret, does that mean writing’s less important to me than it was two years ago? The answer: …maybe?
People give a lot of reasons why they write (so have I), and one I hear a lot is “So I can exorcise my demons.” Fair enough, it worked for me for several years. It’s a method that produces great art, touching personal narratives, and a lot of dead artists. We’re at the 20th anniversary of Infinite Jest, written by a man who discontinued his anti-depressants because he feared their effect on his writing. This man, David Foster Wallace, committed suicide a year after throwing his meds away. This is not uncommon: artists fear that medication will mute their creative ability.
Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something. But is art pain? It certainly aids in defining art. Angsty, troubled material gets labeled “art,” just as happy, commercial-friendly stuff is labeled “entertainment.” In his time, Shakespeare was “entertainment,” now he’s “art.” How much pain and suffering do you think went into A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or “What a Wonderful World,” or that poem your daughter wrote? Do I know? No, but will we ever? Pain is subjective— what may be unbearable for you is a hiccup for others.
If determining whether art is good or not is almost impossible to reach a consensus on, how can we possibly agree on how many hugs someone like Tom Waits needs?
To play Devil’s Advocate to myself, Tom Waits is my favorite musical artist, and he reaches into the darkest, most painful, and most ugly parts of the human condition. “The world is a hellish place,” he says. But he also says, in regard to his creative process, “there’s more than one way to sneak up on a herd of cattle.” While I fell in love with Waits for his dives into despair, my favorite songs by him are the hope spots that become the emotional resolution for all his songs about drunkards killing cats or whatnot. Granted, it’s because his body of work is ugly that those songs are beautiful. But I dare newcomers to Waits to not be touched by the two links I provided.
You’ll notice that, in this blog’s first paragraph, I wrung out all the pain of having a minor physical injury in a drama-king fashion. That didn’t come from having pain— that came from knowing how to describe it in an entertaining and enlightening fashion, which is something you learn, not experience.
I guess what I’m saying is that you need few things to create good art. You don’t always need pain. You don’t always need “experience.” What you need is the will to get better at your craft. If you can’t write due to an injury, then don’t write. But writers are called artists because they make art— not because they’re broken works of art. If you can’t write, put all your energy into making sure you can write again.