Some Thoughts on the “Intense Artist” Stereotype

Categories : Writing
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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the archetype of the “tortured artist” and the intensity that is so often associated with creative people. I am intense – I have been told so by many people, especially when I was younger. I’m much less intense now, because I have learnt to repress that side of myself. I can’t be intense at work. I can’t be intense online. I have learnt the social rules, and they don’t leave space for intensity.

So where did all my intensity go? Did it just vanish into the ether? The simple answer would be that my intensity went into my writing. But that isn’t quite true. I think my intensity went into the way I talk about my writing. My writing itself is so personal, yet it feels worlds away from the person I present myself as in my daily life. I am placid, I keep my opinions to myself. I meet defeat with acceptance and rationality. The bitterness, the jealousy, the anger? I have worked hard to put those sides of myself to rest. I am not a people pleaser; I just can’t be bothered with the complications of displaying the full range of human emotions in settings that don’t hold the infrastructure for sincerity.

I have lived long enough to observe the social rules I need to get by, but I don’t have the innate knowledge of them that everyone else seems to have been born with. I don’t know when I’m going to put a foot wrong. And it’s so much easier to be quiet and placid than to create a new face to show to the world. Sure, I can’t be myself, but at least I don’t have to pretend to be anyone else.

When I write, I don’t have to temper my intensity. I can explore the emotions that don’t have a place in the corporate world, the emotions that a 26-year-old probably should have grown out of. I can write characters who are messy and contradictory and loud, because in my real life, I am a blank slate, silent and palatable, ready to be consumed.

Am I tortured? I can’t call myself that, that would be dramatic. And there’s no room for drama in the world of emails and excel spreadsheets. There’s no room for Eliza in that world either. My writing isn’t an outlet, it’s a lifeline. At the same time, the parts of myself that I explore in my writing would never be present in my life even if I was freer in my self-expression and could remove the mask the world requires me to wear. There are some parts of me that can only exist in the hypothetical, and they are still real parts of me. They just aren’t bound by the consequences of real actions. The hypothetical brings a freedom that the real world could never condone.

I’ve been writing this blog since I was 15. Blogs have long since gone out of fashion in the past decade, replaced by social media that has become increasingly capitalistic. Everyone on Instagram is trying to sell you something. Everyone on TikTok is trying to sell you the idea of something. I exaggerate, of course, but that’s what it feels like. The main reason I have stuck with blogging (albeit with many hiatuses) is that it hasn’t lost its authenticity for me. I don’t have monetised ads on my website, I don’t use affiliate marketing. And right now, at this moment in time, I’m not trying to sell you anything. If I get my current novel published, that may change. But right now, I am coming to you as me – a self I don’t have much freedom to express in my daily life. I can say what I think, and you have a choice as to whether you read it. Every time I go to post on Instagram, I think twice about how it could be misconstrued. I deactivated my twitter account and reactivate it from time to time to lurk, but never post anything anymore. Social media feels like a performance. Not performing some idealised existence, or trying to make my life look different than it is. Just performing being a person, full stop. I don’t understand how my mind can feel so full of life, full of ideas, full of potential, and none of that translates into my outward personality. I don’t understand how there is a version of myself that is so loved by the few people who know her, and I have to keep her hidden from 99% of the world because I don’t know how to translate her into their language.

When I write my novels, I can put all my thoughts, my ideas, my fixations and my humour out into the world, and it’s not marred by my own awkwardness. I can remove the Eliza vessel from the equation, and people get to see who I really am, without my “self” getting in the way. That sounds really sad, when I phrase it like that. I’m like a plant that grows in a really specific environment. I wilt so easily, not because I am broken, but because my environment is so alien to my nature. Every so often I capture glimpses of my full, vibrant self; I remember she exists. I remember that I am intelligent, that I am creative, that I actually like being around people when I can talk to them about something interesting.

When I feel out of place, I’m not stuck in some perpetual adolescence (even if that’s what if often feels like). I have grown up and I have calmed down, and there are some parts of my nature that I will never grow out of. The more I learn to accommodate those parts of myself, the more distant I feel from normalcy. I never know how much of this comes from having an unusual upbringing, and how much is just the way my brain works. All I do know is that when I don’t make space for my intensity, my particularities, my obsessive side, my drive to better myself, I lose my sense of who I am. I’ve spent years laying the groundwork to pursue my academic goals, and it feels like that’s finally coming together. But I’ve neglected my writing, because I was afraid of the intensity that came with it. I was afraid of the polarising responses my words were met with. I was afraid of being told that my voice had no value or validity. But without my writing, a fundamental part of my identity is missing. My creativity, sure, but I can be creative in other ways. It’s not the art itself, but the artistic temperament that comes with it. I need intensity, I ache for it. I need to feel something other than this startling neutrality that adulthood is plagued by.

Every time I write a blog, there is a part of me that’s embarrassed and ashamed at myself for being so earnest on the internet. Plenty of other people on the internet are earnest, but again, they’re usually trying to sell you something. I’m earnest because I yearn to be seen.

Yearning is an important part of being a writer. Maybe it’s just an important part of being an Eliza. Who knows? I have spent my whole life yearning, and it has led me to write 7+ novels, travel to numerous foreign countries, have amazing friendships, fall in love, pursue career paths I’m passionate about. I don’t know who I am when I have nothing to yearn for.

And what is writing, if not yearning? Yearning for a world where all the pieces fall into place, a world where everything has to make sense in the end. I’m no fan of predestination in the Calvinist sense, but in literature? Isn’t it so beautiful to imagine a world where everyone ends up where they’re meant to be?

I create big, sweeping fantasy worlds and then write stories about human emotion. I have spent my whole life observing the people around me, and there is still so much I don’t understand. It took me so many years to realise that most people don’t show up to life as their real selves, that words have hidden meanings and I shouldn’t take everything at face value. I still haven’t learnt not to take it literally when people ask “how are you?” when they really mean “hello”. There are so many “rules” that haven’t clicked for me yet. When I’m writing, I make the rules. It’s easier that way.

If I had to describe my experience of being a person, I would liken it to that of an alien who has come to earth disguised as a human. The alien has read a manual on how to be a human, and follows it by the book, only to learn that everyone else breaks the rules at whim, and there are so many unspoken rules that never made it into the handbook. The more the alien lives by the rules of humanity, the more they stand out as an outsider. I thought I would have grown out of that feeling by the time I was an adult, but I’m 26 and it’s still going strong.

Maybe that feeling of alienation is necessary to write about humanity. Maybe it’s only possible to truly understand the limits of a society by being an outsider. The walls that keep us out are the same walls that keep people in, and it’s important to look at them from both sides. Every so often I will meet a person who understands me, or at least finds me interesting enough to try to. I am so grateful for those people, for my friends and my partner. I am grateful to be loved, I am grateful to be seen, I am grateful to be understood. But I wish the rest of the world didn’t feel so difficult to navigate. I wish I had grown out of the feeling of being an outsider. I have spent my life holding two truths inside me at once: the truth that in order to write the way I do, I have to see the world differently from the people around me; and the truth that I will carry a certain kind of loneliness within me throughout my life, and the pain of that will never fade. One truth does not negate the other. The pain is still there when I am not creative, but the creativity transmutes the pain into a tool that I can use. It bridges the gap, and makes me feel more connected to the world.

So many of the aspects of myself that I struggle with are the exact traits that have ensured my dedication to my writing. Every challenging trait has a positive flipside. I am resilient and dedicated and passionate about my creative work. I couldn’t do any of this if I was not an “intense” person at heart. As I grow older, my intensity takes more of a backseat in my life. But I am learning how to tap into it at will, to make space for it in my creative ventures. There is a balance somewhere, between taming my wilderness enough to get by in the real world, and creating a space where it can be expansive and all-consuming. In the end, everything is fuel for the story. Good emotions, bad emotions, they all burn in the same fire.