About Me

Monday, May 24, 2010

Emotion and the Creative Impulse


I read an article in a professional journal that made me temporarily question everything I do when I write creatively. The article proposes that people who’ve experienced childhood trauma are motivated to write creatively out of a desire for revenge. Though the article describes this desire as a beginning, and not the means or the end, reading the article prompted me to consider these points: Must there be a motive for my writing, beyond the desire for connection, and the wish to express who I am? Must I now analyze whether I seek revenge, when what I value is altruism?

Last Saturday night, after feeling troubled for days, I wrote out these notes, when it came to me that creativity does not start with the desire for revenge; creativity starts with a strong emotion and the overwhelming need to define it. Having suffered trauma as a child may increase our sensitivity to this desire and the complexities of human emotion, making us more apt at expressing them. When we feel acute pain, physically or emotionally, we are more sensitive to its opposite: joy.

Creativity is a coping mechanism with an amazing side effect- creating something “alive” that exists in this world- a poem, a painting, a song, a book- out of our need to define for ourselves, exactly what we are feeling; so that we may feel better. And other people, by accessing our emotions made evident, can identify and be in league with us, and feel better, too.

Naming a thing involves untangling emotions. Ultimately, as humans, when we access those emotions, through creating or experiencing a creation, our perception goes beyond the words or the music or the image. We are not what we think; we are what we feel. So, if we create something that defines an emotion, we have made something that can be experienced as an emotion, by others.

Creativity starts with a strong emotion- often hurt, but it may be love- prompted by the desire to love and be loved, and to be treated as we deserve. Creativity is an assertion of the self. It starts with a nagging something that must be defined. If we bury it, we bury an aspect of ourselves. If we bring it to the “light of day” we have made something either tragic or beautiful that may exist beyond our lifetimes. It begins with a benevolent impulse to share: this is who I am- this is what made me- this is who I wish to become.

The desire for revenge is a legitimate response to trauma. But creativity born of hurt does not have to say: I hurt, and I want you to hurt, too. It can say any or all of these things: I hurt, and this is what I’d like for you to do about it. I hurt and this is what I can do to help myself. I hurt and I don’t know what to do to help me. You hurt and this is what I’d like to do for you. You hurt and I don’t know what I can do for you. You hurt me, and this is what I deserve instead. You hurt me, and this is how I will transcend. Creativity born of love is a celebration.

As we create, we decipher for ourselves who we are and what we feel and how we wish to proceed. We learn about ourselves, and celebrate “me,” accessing the universal, because truth begins and ends with an emotion, and emotion goes beyond circumstance. Details may differ, but emotion exists outside the details, and it is access to that emotion that makes it universal.

In creating, we state emphatically, I am a worthwhile person and I deserve good treatment. That is not the desire for revenge. Born of hurt or love, that is the desire for respect and recognition and fulfillment. It is the desire for connection, because it matters to us whether we are loved, and that we can give love.

Does creativity begin with the desire for revenge? Sure, it can. But it can begin with any strong, or complex emotion; and I believe that it begins with every emotion we can’t name or untangle, until we’ve made the thing we are prompted to create. Creativity will begin, every time we need it.



  1. "Finally it's the work, and not the motivation, that we judge..."

    — John Gardner

    (DIDN'T even HAVE to LOOK IT UP... And yes I am obnoxious. But I can't recall us ever "discussing" John Gardner. Annie, you would do well to seek out ON BECOMING A NOVELIST and THE ART OF FICTION. Gardner was—and is—a wondrous teacher and sage friend. He lives on in his books. Go find him.)

  2. You are right, Annie. I think that "desire for revenge" thing is a very limited understanding. I would believe that people who experience a trauma would have a little more to say than those who don't and this is always a plus. But I agree with you that those who are open to powerful emotions need to write things down and have the proper energy to write things down. But revenge, what is that? There might be a desire to right a wrong, to recreate the world in a more acceptable, favorable manner. But revenge? Yes, just like you say, I believe that creativity is born from love.

  3. Hi everyone,

    I'm on my way to work, so I don't have time to comment back, yet. Thank you for your comments! I woke up with this thought: The desire for revenge is really the desire for love, isn't it?

    Hi Drax, I own the Art of Fiction, and On Becoming a Novelist. I've read and highlighted both of them and included them in my bibliography on Writing Guides. More, later...

  4. Hi Drax,
    I was writing quickly, or I wouldn't have forgotten to thank you for the suggestion. You've prompted me to go back and read Gardner again, so thank you!

  5. Hi Lori,
    I always enjoy and appreciate your perspective. Thanks!

  6. so interesting....i agree a desire for revenge is possible but surely not THE THING. myself, i have never fully understood what motivated me..i started writing creatively in kindergarten and literally never stopped.

  7. Hi Maggie,

    I love that you write, and the way that you write. Through comments back and forth I think we've both mentioned the need to process our world, and that writing is a necessary part of living. I think, more than anything, writing has the power to help process the emotions that are attached to events and relationships, creating something authentic; and authenticity is inherently beautiful.

    You are one of the most authentic writers I've ever read. Your honesty scares me, sometimes, not for myself, but for you, lowering all your defenses. But what you do, helps readers to better know themselves, because you name the things we sometimes haven't found the words, ourselves, to express. (I can't stop gushing about your writing!)

    I think what motivates creativity, more than anything, is simply the fact that we are human.

  8. Annie,
    Such an interesting topic!
    My opinion is that it is possible for revenge to fuel creation but creation does not depend on revenge just because one has experienced childhood trauma
    I have never once created a poem or painting for revenge.
    In dark times, I wrote to define my feelings, like you said. Writing helped me feel, it helped me heal too. Now I write through all my emotions.
    It is almost insulting to say that children who experience trauma want revenge through creativity. I think it is a healthy outlet that has little or no need for it.

  9. I would have liked to read that article you're referring to, although I'm not sure I'd agree with it.

    I like how you state, "creativity does not start with the desire for revenge; creativity starts with a strong emotion and the overwhelming need to define it."

    At least that has been my experience...

  10. Hi Alexis,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I agree with you, that creativity is a healthy outlet; and, in part, I think that’s what the writer of that article was saying. Without saying it this plainly, I think the author was saying that the desire for revenge could be turned into the healthier desire to process trauma through writing, resulting in something of value (if the way I’m trying to say it makes any sense- It’s 1am where I am, and I should be in bed!).

    Where I found the most difficulty in the author’s view is the presumption that childhood trauma results in a desire for revenge, as if it is a given. And the more I’ve thought about it, as I wrote in earlier comments, the phrase can be turned upside down; in my view, it can more correctly be stated that the “desire for revenge” is really the desire to be respected, recognized and valued; it is the desire to be loved; and the desire to be loved can encompass all emotion, including its opposite. I don’t think the term, revenge, is accurate. (Or maybe it's because that was not/is not my own personal response to trauma, I can't accept the term, because the term is too confining and does not contain enough of what I feel.)

    Childhood trauma results in strong emotions. Channeling those emotions through creative expression is a healthy, rather than a self destructive or malicious response. I think that’s what the author was saying; not to act on any desire for revenge; but to turn it into something healing and productive- at least I hope that’s what the author was saying, and I can’t disagree with that.

  11. Hi Terresa,

    I was writing and revising my lengthy comment to Alexis, when you were writing your comment, so I just saw it. There's a couple of specific reasons I haven't linked to the article, or referenced it directly, so I hope you don't mind. I've tried to better express my take on the author's position in my response to Alexis. The main purpose of my post is not to dismiss the author's position; but to explain my own.

    Thank you for letting me know what you most identify with: the idea that we write to define our emotions; which is true of our warm and loving emotions, as well as the emotions that trouble us.

  12. I've been given the advice, "Write about what you don't want to write about."

    The things that stir you up, that pain you, that provoke within you discomfort or aches, that get under your skin and into you. Those are begging to be untangled, and the result is writing that is charged.

    Writing isn't always about pain/sickness/anger/trauma, just as it isn't always joyful.

    That article you read...I'm curious about where it was published, and curious about the author's argument.

    Anyhow, it sounds like all of this was useful for you to think about your mission statement :). Loved reading this!

  13. Hi, Annie. I agree with you. Heavy sigh. Academics sometimes don't get it. To generalize that all writing comes from revenge is a bit much. Maybe the writer of the article has a different definition of revenge than I do.

    I have some poems and stories that are anger driven, and they were a great catharsis to write...like howling at the moon. The writing empowered me and helped me to purge mental demons. Is that revenge? I never thought of it that way.

    I define revenge according to intent. The "angry" work I show the public is intended to highlight the victim, show a wrong, and describe why the injustice should never happen again. It's not intended to make the townsfolk break out the tar and feathers.

    Most of my writing comes from, as you say, a desire for communication with another human being. I agree that much writing comes from love!

  14. Hi Julie,

    I'm sorry I haven't referenced to the author's article. Like I said, there's reasons that I haven't. So, I hope in my summarizing statements I haven't mischaracterized what the author meant.

    My issue with the article is the presumption that childhood trauma results in a desire for revenge. The author didn't say that all creative writing comes from the desire for revenge; but that that is one way. Further, the author considered the desire for revenge to be the impulse, but not the intent or the outcome of creative writing, specifically creative nonfiction in the form of autobiography. The origin of the author's premise was their own experiences of childhood trauma, so I empathize.

    Also, it should be said that it is the nature of academic research to isolate a factor so that it can be measured and analyzed. In retrospect, I could have made it more clear that this is a scholarly article, not written for a popular audience. However, the purpose of my own post was not to discuss the article, but my reaction to it.

    It's scary, though, isn't it? The entire concept, at least for me, made me question: What am I doing, when I write angry thoughts? Am I seeking revenge? I concluded that I am not. I am seeking better treatment, either for myself, or for others. I am naming the wrongs, in order to right them.

  15. Hi Hannah,

    Thank you for your comments, and sharing the advice about writing:

    "I've been given the advice, 'Write about what you don't want to write about.'

    The things that stir you up, that pain you, that provoke within you discomfort or aches, that get under your skin and into you. Those are begging to be untangled, and the result is writing that is charged."

    I think the statement above is a good example of why I write, and what I hope is the outcome. But I think your approach to writing may be a bit different than mine. From what I know of you as The Storialist, you specifically seek out prompts, bringing everything you are to them, and translating your response in the form of an amazing and valuable poem, employing all of your skills as a writer; and as a sensitive, thinking human being. You are a master at expressing emotion and meaning through a mix of imagery and reflection.

    My writing comes from an internal response, usually an emotional one, and cannot always be tied to a specific prompt. That's why, sometimes, my poems are not concrete enough, lacking specific imagery. I think my fiction writing is an entirely different thing, however. I work to show, not tell.

    Thanks again for your comments!