Does adversity make creativity stronger?

by Pari

Ever since I heard the concept in elementary school, I’ve subscribed to the idea that adversity makes a person stronger. At the very least, it adds a certain meaning to those times in life when it feels like the entire universe is conspiring against one’s happiness, health, financial success, good relationships with others . . . .

I’m still inclined to accept the idea on a meta-level, though I’ve seen troubles take dear friends and family down hard. Some of them have never recovered. Some decided their pain was too much to bear and they killed themselves. So I’m not quite as ideal as I once was.

However, the other day in conversation with a tremendously accomplished man, Chris Schueler, a different take on the concept came up: Chris believes that adversity makes creativity stronger.

Hmmmm. I don’t know how I feel about this one.  The thought encourages me; I really want to hang my hat on it. How comforting to think that the emotional struggles I’m going through right now will make me a better writer.

I want to believe; I’m just not seeing any obvious evidence of its veracity yet.

It is true that I’m creating more in general. While my fiction may not be as large in word count as it was while I was home full time, I’m sticking to a schedule and have only forgotten to write one day in the last 412. So I’m far more consistent. I’m also painting, “doodling,” dancing and singing more than I’ve done in years. So, again, the sheer quantity of my creativity is increasing.

But is any of it “stronger?”

I can’t say because I don’t know what that means.

There’s a bit of “One must suffer for one’s art,” underlying my interpretation of Chris’s observations. I know that’s not what he meant. He was talking about his own work and how he was able to pour much of his emotional turmoil into incredibly moving television productions such as Cody — a video about Cody Unser (of Unser racing family fame) and her journey with paralysis.

I don’t feel like I’m pouring anything into anything. Instead I feel like I’m a dancing drop of water on a hot frying pan.

Right now my days have an automatic quality to them rather than the vigor of creativity. Yeah, yeah, it’s early days in my own journey and I’m maintaining well. Yes. I know all of that. And maybe it’s too much to expect that I can even judge if I’m becoming stronger creatively – or if my creative output is stronger.

Again, I don’t know, but I think it’s a really interesting idea.

Would you like to explore it with me?

1. Do you buy it? Does adversity make creativity stronger?

2. Can you give examples in your own life or from artists/writers /other creatives that have found this to be true?

33 thoughts on “Does adversity make creativity stronger?

  1. PD Martin

    I think adversity often gives you more stories to tell, more perspectives – and that's great for creativity. It can also give you drive, which is essential in any artistic pursuit. It's too tough to create, or at least try to make a living out of it, unless you're completely driven ๐Ÿ™‚

    Phillipa

  2. Dana King

    I think "adversity builds creativity" has the same fallacy as "adversity builds character." Adversity does not build character; it reveals it. Same thing with creativity.

  3. Barbie

    I think it's been true for me, for a long period of my life. Maybe because for a long time I buried myself in fantasy, or creativity, in order to avoid reality. I was 15 when I had my first very, ver bad depression crisis, and I never wrote as much as I did then. I'd write literally all day, during classes, after class, until I fell asleep. It was then that I wrote dozens of heartbreaking poems about my wishes to die, and I'm so sure that letting the words out, in a way, kept me from acting on it -, and met characters from many of my stories, plotted a lot of my books. I wrote A LOT, because I just could not handle the pain.

    And so it's been since then. I've had some really bad crisis amd challenges, and from each of them characters, stories, ideas were born. Even poems, which I hadn't written on years, after a break up I wrote a beautiful one. So, yes, in my experience, I believe adversity makes creativity stronger. And creativity saves lives.

  4. Jenni

    Adversity is stress. Stress takes a toll on our health, decision-making, our brains. Recent studies seem to indicate that hypertension and stress can interact to worsen Alzheimers and probably other conditions. But you could say life is stress. And out of it, some people do thrive on the challenges, creativity is enhanced, their energy still high; but for others, it might tend to beat us down and drive out any creative impulse. It depends, probably, on many factors – not only the type of personality, intuitions, and insights someone has, but also on the type of adversity. I think it's much more difficult with certain types of stressors to find creative energy than with others. Fighting a daily battle just to work to put food on the table is hard enough – lots of people can still be creative in that type of adversity, but add to that an out of control adolescent or a loved one with a major illness or a job loss or a combination of major issues, and I think it adds up to creative gridlock. It becomes a struggle to find enough hours in the day, and emotional issues can suck up time like nothing else. It can be paralyzing. Whether that adds to creativity after a crisis is over may be another thing altogether. It most likely does.

    I think what actually does enhance creativity is practicing it as much as possible. Being in a habit of writing daily or creating daily is going to set the stage for those moments when we successfully draw on our experiences, our adversity, our humanity to create something brilliant.

  5. Reine

    No, I don't think adversity is helpful, but I agree with Philippa that it can give you something to write about. But so can beauty, success and love. Some of the greatest art comes out of pain. Some of the greatest art comes out of joy.

    No. I think boiling and broiling and explosive interest are the things that make exciting creative work possible. Seething engagement carries you beyond distraction. It gets you out of bed and to your desk and you write and write, and it's 3pm before you realize you haven't had your morning cup of coffee yet. Yes, things can get in the way of that happening. But when it's happening it is the world. It is yours.

  6. Pari Noskin

    True, Phillipa. Adversity can provide the grist for contemplation and plot lines — for a depth of emotion perhaps not felt before. The drive you speak of is also a potential byproduct if one doesn't become defeated first . . .

    Dana,
    I think I like your take much, much more than either possible adages. Revealing character . . . hmmm. Does that translate to creativity? What do you think?

    Barbie,
    Thank you for sharing your personal story here with us. I think your comment demonstrates exactly what Chris might've meant . . .

    Jenni,
    What a heartfelt post. Thank you first for that. Thank you also for the subtle distinctions you made — the fact that it probably depends on what kind of adversity and how many layers of it — and their relationship to creativity.

    You also give me hope that my daily practice will serve me well when I have the energy to write more in the future . . . Again, thank you.

  7. Pari Noskin

    Reine,
    What can I say? The second paragraph of your comments is stunning . . . simply a stunning piece of writing. The content is absolutely true — the execution truly beautiful.
    Thank you for sharing that with us this morning.

  8. Sarah W

    My thoughts mirror Barbie's — writing was an escape mechanism for me, a way to step back from the chaos and view things from a more detatched perspective.

    Writing still therapeutic- — I can explore the pain and reimagine my world so I win. And, in so doing, I have, in a way.

  9. Pari Noskin

    Sarah,
    Stepping back from the chaos . . .
    Yes, indeed.
    When I was a teen, I definitely used writing as therapy. I'm not sure if I do now. I'm going to have to think about it . . .

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I couldn't possibly say it better than Jenni just did.

    I don't think I believe any more that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. It MIGHT – but it there's a danger it might make you one of the walking dead.

  11. Gar Haywood

    Pari, if you manage to come out the other end of it better and stronger — which is no easy trick — adversity has the potential of enhancing one's creativity, if only because it can give you a perspective on life you may not have had before. But I'm with a number of others here who have said you're better off without it, no matter what it ultimately adds to your creative tool box.

  12. Pari Noskin

    ooof, Alex. Yes. It's true. I also think that was Reine's point too.

    Gar, too bad we often don't have a clue about the upcoming adversity until it's kicked us in the gut. I have this image of my former Tae Kwon Do master . . . his kick was so fast — and he didn't telegraph at all — so most of us were surprised every time.

  13. Louise Ure

    You've got some lovely and thoughtful responses from the folks above, Pari.

    I don't think adversity makes one more creative. It is nothing but the next step in life. One has a choice to bow down to it, or to try to muddle through. And in that muddling, there will be a recognition that things have changed, and that, too, will be built into your heart. It's that new heart that you're writing/singing/dancing about now.

  14. Pari Noskin

    Louise,
    How right you are. I think adversity is just a step — not even necessarily the next one — in an ongoing existence . . . But those new hearts may be precisely what Chris was getting at.

    Thank you for framing it so beautifully.

  15. Alafair Burke

    I think adversity can bring insight into the human condition, which can feed creativity, but I don't think it is either a necessary nor sufficient condition to creativity. I also think that current adverse circumstances can truly undermine the creative process, at least for some people.

  16. Lisa Alber

    I believe what so many have mentioned above: adversity brings insight, wisdom, perspective, and hopefully compassion. It's part of the ying-yang of life. I know for myself that in the moment, adversity diminishes my creativity. The only kind of writing I do well in such moments is self-pitying, overanalytical drivel!

    Here's a question: Do you think people who compartmentalize well maintain their creativity easier than those of us who don't compartmentalize well?

  17. JT Ellison

    What Alafair just said hits it for me. It's like how some people thrive under deadlines, and some shut down. Adversity can spur you on to greatness, or kill you.

    That said, I think adversity can help you appreciate your creativity. I believe Buddhists call it "hard enlightenment" – and I think that's a really good way to find out just what you're made of.

    Personally, adversity makes me try harder. Almost as if I've got something to prove. Go figure.

  18. Tammy Cravit

    My sense is that adversity aids creativity, but not directly. Rather, adversity teaches us tenacity, persistence, and grace under fire – at least if you make it through. But I wonder if those who say things like "adversity enhances creativity" and "what doesn't kill us makes us stronger" and "there's nobility in suffering" aren't engaging in just a bit of retroactive rationalization and meaning-making from their own struggles. "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" is just as much a lie as when Wilfred Owen wrote his poem, I think, and it's no truer when the dying is in the service of something other than the motherland.

  19. Catherine

    I agree that there are a multitude of shadings in how people respond to adversity…and how their creativity is affected.

    For me it's fairly simple. In adverse situations i often think, this is crap I want to create something that lifts me out of this.

    I think adversity makes my desire to create stronger. In easy breezy times I can waft in and around my goals. Happily mind you, but I do tend to waft. Adversity is the burr that provides the push I need to focus. Creativity becomes a balm to my senses in adverse times. Creating something, anything helps nourish me through these times.

  20. tess gerritsen

    Adversity is a distraction from creativity. That's the time when I feel the least urge to write, because so much energy must be channeled into dealing with the crisis.

    But afterwards, when the crisis has been resolved, adversity leaves you with great material.

  21. gayle

    I think that adversity that ends can certainly shape one's character. Not so sure that it makes one more creative. Sometimes adversity helps use learn something useful or gives us insight into ourselves or others. I learned that it's ok to ask for help from my friends. I didn't have to be strong all the time. It's ok to accept help. I also think that it can make one more grateful.

  22. Judy Wirzberger

    Wow! So many wonderful insights. No one can experience life without experiencing adversity. From the moment we are slipped or yanked from the womb, adversity becomes integral to our environment. I would not say that it nourishes or encourages creativity. It does, or can, deepen our understanding of the world in which we survive and reveal our character and values as well as that of others. It is what we do with that knowledge in our writing, painting, etc., and our day to day living, our interactions with our fellow inhabitants that gives adversity meaning.

    I think of a daffodil bulb, left on a window sill, that withers and dies. But thrown into the ground to fight for water and sun, to push against the earth that surrounds it, the daffodil emerges, bit by bit and comes into its own, in its own time and manner.

  23. David Corbett

    If I may quote myself (DONE FOR A DIME):

    What doesn't kill you just leave you lying there.

    Times of strife produce little great art. It is times of hope and prosperity that do. As with history, so with people, imho.

  24. Pari Noskin

    Wow. I should've checked this post earlier.
    Thanks to everyone who responded.

    Alafair,
    I agree that adversity can undermine. I *want* to believe that it might help me to become a better writer, but also agree that it's neither a prerequisite nor a guarantee.

    Lisa,
    I do think so. Compartmentalization is a tremendous skill . . . up to a point. Where I think it might break down is in allowing a person to fully experience moments and that lack can be lethal to creativity too.

    JT,
    "Hard enlightenment?" Call it diamond and I can relate <g>

    Tammy,
    Wow. That whole hindsight and 20/20 vision thing is sure convenient, isn't it? I wonder if approaching adversity as if it is a lesson — if a person has the luxury of thinking that way rather than being so in the throes as to become inert — is a way to force the experience to BE a lesson?

  25. Pari Noskin

    Catherine,
    "Adversity is the burr that provides the push I need to focus. Creativity becomes a balm to my senses in adverse times. Creating something, anything helps nourish me through these times." Another fabulous observation beautifully written and shared.

    I feel incredibly lucky today to have had such extraordinary responses.

    Tess . . . I sure hope so because in that case, I'm due for some great material.

    Gayle,
    You're right about asking for help, although I've noticed in my own go-round that when I'm hurting the most is the time it's least likely to me to ask for it.

    And the observation about adversity that ends is crystalline; if adversity is the norm, I'm not sure what it would be like. No hope?

    Judy and David? I'm gobsmacked.
    Yes.

  26. Pari Noskin

    Reine,
    You're welcome.
    Thank YOU.

    EVERYONE . . . I'm not urging an end to this conversation, merely expressing gratitude for what has proven to be a fascinating and gorgeous conversation today.

    I wasn't sure where my questions would go. This evening I'm joyous that I asked.

  27. Fran

    After a viciously difficult time, I found myself thinking of my heart/spirit like a pane of glass. When I was whole and unshattered, I hadn't given the light I reflected much thought, but I know it was there and it was clear. Afterwards, I perceived myself as broken but eventually rebuilt, like stained glass with the breaks soldered together. The light is wildly different but both are beautiful. And I understand completely those who cannot bring themselves to find the solder and leave the shards on the ground.

    I'm not sure that contributes much, I'm kinda tired, but I do think that adversity can be turned into something creative and beautiful. It just depends on the person.

  28. Pari Noskin

    Fran,
    Thank you so much for this last comment of the day . . . I think it's incredibly hopeful, eloquent and — in a very real way — necessary. It's the perfect conclusion to one of my all-time favorite discussions on Murderati.

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  30. Pari Noskin

    hah hah hah. That last comment has to be an auto troll, but the content is especially funny given my topic.

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