What Happens When You Turn Your Life’s Worst Moments Into Art

We spoke to Amanda Palmer, Tori Amos, Chris Gethard, and others about putting pain up for public consumption.

by Graham Isador
Oct 5 2017, 4:22pm

Story of Love | Image by William Schaff

Last summer I performed a one-man show that I had been writing, on and off, for the better part of four years. The play dealt in a lot of tropes of the solo-performance—a tumultuous childhood, struggles with self-image, feelings of isolation/family drama—but throughout I tried my best to keep it entertaining. For the most part I think it worked. Audiences laughed where I wanted them to laugh (thank god). None of the sad bits came across too maudlin and people seemed at least mildly surprised by the continual plot reveals throughout the sixty-minute run time. By indie theatre terms the thing was a success, in so much as the performances were attended by literally dozens of people. With the exception of that time I went to the Chinese buffet and ate until I didn't feel feelings, it's the art I'm most proud of and the thing I've gotten the most recognition for. But that achievement, however minor, isn't something I've been able to fully enjoy. Not really.

At the climax of my play I share a story about a hardcore punk show where I was pushed to the floor and repeatedly kicked in the face. A group of seven dudes had taken offence to my eyeliner and wanted to let me know that "faggots" (their words) weren't welcome in the scene. The beating broke my nose. I lost a piece of my tooth. When I explain the story in the play I still try and make it funny, but most evenings the moment got a knowing nod rather than actual laughter. Each night I would get up on stage and walk people through one of the most difficult experiences of my life. At the end, if I did a good enough job, everyone would stand up and clap. People would buy me a drink and tell me it was all very meaningful. Oddly enough it was the story of the beating that people responded to most. I was told it elevated the show.

Obviously, I wanted to tell that story but for whatever reason I still couldn't shake the fact that my biggest professional success was birthed out of my worst moment. It felt strange.

Thinking about my show made me consider artists who have had similar situations but on a much grander scale. What happens if your multi-platinum album came from singing about personal tragedies or even just a terrible breakup? How does it feel to get an HBO special or a Netflix show through the sharing your struggles with mental health? What is the urge to make art out of the bad times? To find out, I asked a handful of artists about the double sided nature of creating work from the darker moments.

Maria Bamford Drowning by Bruce Smith

Maria Bamford, Comedian/ Lady Dynamite

Like most people going through tough times, at first I didn't feel like I should talk about it and for whatever reason I couldn't seem to find anyone who had gone through the same experience—anyone who had made it past the horrible part. So, it makes me feel useful to talk about it—that maybe it normalizes a mental health episode for someone. If anything, it's a selfish act—that I want people to know that I have bipolar and if I ever start acting odd—it won't be a big secret and I'll be quicker to get help.

One of my better known stories is from when I checked into a psychiatric hospital. The psychiatrist Youtubed me during the intake at the psych ward to make sure I wasn't "delusional" in claiming to be a comedian. He was a real hose beast and then, he put me on a mood stabilizer whose primary side effects are COGNITIVE. Making it almost impossible to think or talk. I felt so angry and powerless. My dad's a doctor and my sister's a doctor and they don't put their feet up on a desk and google patient's imdb, pages or critique the patient's work life during an appointment. And then, with mental health—there's this layer of you're a loon anyways—so if I said, "Hey, can you put down the laptop for a second—I know I'm funny, but I'm also right here." I felt worried he'd think I was being non-compliant. Maybe he was just having a bad day at work and sort of bored. But I get bored at work. Sometimes I look into a crowd and think of barbecue potato chips waiting for me back stage, but I try to maintain eye contact and not take out my phone during my set.

Anyways, I've gotten many wonderful notes of appreciation and support—more than I deserve. I'm sure there are people who don't find it helpful but I think my manager weeds out those messages. I'm glad that any of my creative work has meaning for someone outside of myself. The darker experiences have definitely made me open myself to connecting with other people. Somewhere I read that it's weakness not strength that binds us to each other and I've found that to be true. Now that I've been healthier I do sometimes worr— like my new material has no dramatic mental health stories because I've been stable for 5 years- but if I work myself out of a fanbase because I feel so good—who cares?

Amanda by Kyle Cassidy

Amanda Palmer, Author/Singer/Songwriter

I woke up to the news today [ Author's Note: this response was edited the day after the mass shootings in Las Vegas] and digested it. I had also been having a hard time juggling my schedule, juggling motherhood, and juggling marriage. I just broke down crying on the porch. I couldn't handle the amount of emotion I had. I wasn't in despair but I found myself at the kitchen sinking doing a dish and feeling this urge to just write something about…to somehow harness all of those emotions into something productive. Just because I can and I feel so powerless otherwise. I think other people built in other ways would channel all of those frustrations, feelings of powerlessness, or feelings of grief, into building a chair or making a quiche, or volunteering. Or if you couldn't figure out any of those things maybe they'd just jump off a fucking bridge…but that's the thing. I'm a songwriter.

It's taken a lifetime of mindfulness practice to have the foresight to look at myself washing a dish at the sink and realizes that you, Amanda Palmer, are inspired to write when you're unhappy. That's just the way it rolls. It's a very rare moment that I'm inspired to write because I'm content. When I'm at peace I want to be sitting at a table with friends, drinking wine, and listening to other people's music. But I've plumbing the pain of my existence for so long that it's really interesting to consider it. It's just the water that I swim around in.

There is a total valid notion to the tortured artist because I think in some ways we all buy it. But that doesn't mean that it's good for me, or any of us. As a really angsty teenager I wanted to experiment with every notion of sex, drugs, and danger so that I could be an interesting tortured artist. That was my ambition. I wanted to have enough interesting tortured experiences that I'd have something to write about. I wanted to have a vital crazy life. Risk was a part of that and still is. But I've heard a lot of other artist say this: it's really hard to write when you're in a depression. That's true for me too. One of the hallmarks of an actual depression is that action is very difficult. I've been there. Even thought you know you're in this wash of all these incredibly dark, and profound, and meaningful emotions channeling those into a song – while therapeutic - can be really hard when you're at the fucking bottom of it.

But melancholy? Melancholy can be super productive. Melancholy is where you have a nice combination of sadness, and a little bit of resentment, and anger. You've got enough fuel to actually set a project on fire. Where as depression is a bucket that can really put a dampener on anything. When I have been at my absolute darkest I've found it very hard to write.

For a long time I didn't realize that as a workaholic, masochistic, artist I don't have to take every bit of my pain and turn it into an album pie. Not everything has to be grist for the mill. Trying to make everything into the art can make you so unable to enjoy your life that no even a bunch of hint records would be worth that torture.The stuff we do to speak with each other through the medium of art is about trying to communicate with one another. We're trying to create things that can point towards the bigger things that we can't communicate with just language. As for people responding about it? We're all going to die. Why waste any time doing anything but being honest with one another. About the good and the bad. You don't want to look back and realize that you never took the time to really communicate with another person when you could have.

Faisal Butt by Tristan Brand

Faisal Butt, Comedian

As a Pakistani kid with the last name Butt, I always dreaded the first day of school. When the teacher would take attendance they'd go through each name alphabetically. Anderson, Alexander, Bryant, BUTT. A few of my classmates who didn't know me would snicker but that would be it. Still it was a reminder of something bigger. Growing up as a Pakistani Muslim in Canada already meant that I stood out. My name didn't make it easier. Later when someone pointed out that my full name Faisal Butt kind of sounded like the words Facial Butt things did start to get a little hard. As a side note when I'm googling myself and type Faisal Butt into the engine google asks: Did you mean Facial Butt? Which doesn't really make sense, but it did introduce me to my new thing.

Anyways, someone would say my name and someone else would laugh. It got annoying but I understood it. We were kids and we heard the word BUTT. That was funny. One day after the class all laughed at my last name my teacher pulled me aside and ask how I felt about all the kids laughing at me. I told her that BUTT was funny and she got mad. She asked how I really felt. I kept on saying BUTT until she gave up. That was my name. It wasn't weird to me. It was the first time I realized I could disarm people with jokes. It's this little moment but it meant something. Fifteen years later I started working as a stand up.

Tori Amos

Tori Amos, singer/songwriter

In 1988 the album Y Kant Tori Read was castigated by the music industry. That experience pushed me to a place where I had to look at my life. I had been playing since I was two and a half and I couldn't figure out how I got to this place. For years I had been producing my own songs and making the type of work that I wanted to create, but the songs were getting rejection letters from labels. At a certain point it was clear that they weren't going to give me an opportunity to make a record that was singer-songwriter oriented. Labels wanted a pop rock type of record. They wanted a commercial statement. So I chose to buy into that. I had been in the bar for so long playing piano. I was getting older. I thought that if I didn't try and do what they wanted that was it for me. I tried to make that kind of record.

My mother always said that the best thing that ever happened to me was that [ Y Kant Tori Read] was such a bomb. I'm not saying that I didn't enjoy working with the producer, but what I am trying to tell you is that I compromised on the presentation of myself. I made certain choices and I paid for that. I don't know if you've experienced this, if you've ever written a book our put out anything that's considered a failure, but the way that people in the music industry treated me…there were very few that reached out. It's almost like you have a plague. You're carrying something that no one wants to rub off on them.

That's failure. I was alone and I decided in that time that I understood what the music industry was made up of. And I decided that I was just going to make the music I wanted to make regardless of whether or not I ever sold another record again. At least then I would have my self-respect. I've never forgotten that lesson. People are there for you when there is success but when you're going through a tough time – when people aren't embracing your work – it can be different. That was the headspace I was in when I wrote Little Earthquakes. [ Author's Note: Little Earthquakes would go on to sell over two million copies.] It's ironic that what I received success for was the thing that people told me I would never be successful with. I was never given the free pass to be the artist I wanted to be, I had to fight for it.

Writers are thieves from their own lives and the lives of others. I made a decision that I was going to go and observe things. I wanted to make pilgrimages and put myself into situations that push me. I write about people's emotions and what people go through. Myself included. Maybe that's what people respond to. If that subject matter seems dark really depends on interpretation but I can understand how it might seem from an outside perspective.

For example: While writing my latest album [ Native Invader] my mother experienced a stroke. It seemed very much that she was under attacked. As I was experiencing the trauma of that it seemed like the Mother I knew wasn't all there. It felt like she had been hijacked. It reminded me of certain words that were being hijacked in the states and it seemed like there was a correlation between what was happening to my mother country and my actual mother. It's up to people to interrupt that. When I'm writing, even about the more difficult moments, there has to be a precision. What I hope is that whatever I'm creating in a song is done with an emotional intelligence that's creating spaces for people to step into. If people are feeling like they're in an emotional whiplash maybe stepping into those places allows them to consider those things from another perspective.

Illustration by William Schaf

William Schaff , Visual Artist

Years ago my mom would often ask me: why don't you draw something happy? I was working multiple jobs at the time, just trying to support myself. I would tell her that when I get home I have so little time to make art that what time I have should be given to the uglier side of life. There were plenty of artists out there already capturing the prettier side and I felt it important that we consider the other side as well. To live in a world of only one or the other seems false and dangerous. Creating for me has always been a process of mulling things over in my mind, trying to figure out something that is troubling me, or that causes me a sense of awe, and finding a way to share those questions with others…maybe even giving them a way into the question they hadn't thought of yet. I have often wondered if the reasons my pieces hit people like they do is because I'm not telling anyone what they see is bad or good, but leaving it for them to come to their own conclusions.

The imagery I choose is often heavier in its nature: the dead, dying, and people in distress. I chose to draw those things because they are all around me. Whether they be our family and friends we have lost, those who have come before us, or those in numbers heartbreakingly high...this is what is always around us. How do we confront these things? Through exposure can we become more compassionate, or do we become more desensitized? What defines "life" and what defines "death"?

There was a series of sketches I did from when my father was passing away. When I would be spending time with him, as he was dying, I didn't know what else to do with myself but draw. As the cancer reached his brain and he became less and less communicative, I would sit there and draw him because he was what I was thinking on, and I didn't know what else to do. The paper gave a place for my helplessness to exist in a way that was less frightening to me. As for sharing them publicly I did it because—again—that's just what I do. I know it can sound cliche for artists to say, but my art truly is my life...it is all I feel I should be doing and it documents my life, be it through things I experience first hand, or things I learn about that effect me. It is my better expressed side and their is no editing process because you can't edit life. I approach my pieces honestly, and have at times put things in them even I am not too comfortable with. But in the end, if I believe I am being honest, and compassionate, then I feel no shame in putting up even difficult things to look at and feel no shame in earning the simple living I do.

Chris Gethard | via YouTube

Chris Gethard, Comedian/ Host The Gethard Show

Earlier this year HBO released my special Career Suicide. Career Suicide is an adaptation of my off-Broadway show. It's a comedy about depression, alcoholism, suicide and the other funniest parts of life. Initially, I did not have any desire to share that type of material. It was the inverse, actually: I had a few jokes that dealt with it, scattered and unrelated. My pal Mike Birbiglia started pushing me to see if they added up to an entire show. I took it as a challenge and only when I realized that I had enough jokes that I'd stand by did I sit down and work on the show. I had no desire to do something profound first or touching first—as a comedian, I knew it had to be funny first. So when I was confident there was funny there, I got to work.The process was just like any other jokes, only a more intense version of it: I got on stage and tried the material out in front of crowds. It was more intense than usual because when the jokes bombed, it was a more isolating loneliness than I've ever known. Opening up about some of that stuff and realizing you didn't figure out how to tell a crowd about it in a way that they connect with made me feel not just like a joke failure had happened (which happens to all comedians all the time) but also that I personally had stuck my neck out there in a way that was terrifying. So the usual, eating shit and figuring out how to fix it, but with the added terror of feeling so, so alone when it wasn't going well.

It was terrifying and felt like a risk. I sometimes wonder still why I took that risk, then I remember that it has helped some people. I also in a very ego driven way know that I have material that's objectively funnier—which logic says should go on the biggest platform of your career—but pound for pound laughs per minute had to take a backseat on this one in order to be respectful of the material at hand. No easy jokes, no cheap jokes.The fan response is always very motivating when it comes to this type of material—people tell me it's helped them and that's nice. But more importantly, people sometimes say it's helped them understand the people suffering in their lives a little more, and that makes me feel even better.

These responses have been edited for length and flow.

Graham Isador is a writer in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.