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  • Maya Sinha

Portraits of the Artist: Two New Books About Creative Types

Updated: Feb 25, 2022

Are artists insufferable? And if so, why?

As a writer slightly out-of-step with normal people, I’m glad somebody is pondering these questions. In fact, two recent books— a Catholic literary novel and a nonfiction study of the artistic personality—shed light on what it means to be a creative person in the modern age.

In her debut novel, As Earth Without Water, Dappled Things editor Katy Carl tells the story of two young painters struggling to make their way in the world. Though neither Angele Solomon (a talented young woman from a hardscrabble background) or Dylan Fielding (a precocious rich kid who makes success look easy) is religious, they move restlessly through 21st century settings like two pilgrims who occasionally cross paths. Journeying from a Chicago skyscraper to a monastery in Kentucky, with stops in New York, Rome, and New Orleans, Angele and Dylan are seekers—but what, exactly, are they seeking?

As the story begins, corporate marketing consultant Angele is trying to escape her former self: an aspiring painter in a doomed love affair with Dylan. In her own words, laced with bitterness, she has found a “regular job” and is striving “to be someone else.” While there is nothing inherently wrong with working in graphic design, for Angele it represents disillusion, the Plan B necessitated by her failure to launch as a painter. This meeting-running, pumps-wearing Angele is not a happy person; despite her accomplishments, the failure still stings.

Who should breeze into the lobby of Angele’s soulless office tower but Dylan, on tour with his critically-acclaimed new exhibition? Though she is still attracted to him, this galling turn of events does not bring out her best. Dragged to the gallery on her lunch break, Angele sees that one of Dylan’s paintings has a grim personal significance. In her mind, it’s closely tied to her rejection of an artist’s life, her wounded flight from Dylan’s world.

If Angele seems resentful and touchy when we meet her, Dylan is hardly better. A libertine who rejects monogamy, he has been casually cruel to Angele despite his genuine affection for her and—more than that—the pair’s instinctive understanding of each other. Early in the novel, the on-again-off-again couple has this exchange:

“If I could ever have gotten married and stayed married, I think now,” he says, “it would have been to you.”

I have to laugh. “Are you kidding me? We wouldn’t have survived it. We are both such insufferable people.”

“Not to each other we aren’t.”

There is some truth to this. I have to collect my thoughts . . .

In The Mind of The Artist: Personality and the Drive to Create, psychologist William Todd Schultz puts forth a theory that explains why these two star-crossed characters “get” each other. Schultz asserts that “there are particular, largely heritable personality traits that predict creativity and creative achievement.” Examples of the artistic personality type—whose key feature is a high level of the Big Five personality trait “openness to experience”— include Miles Davis, Frieda Kahlo, Sylvia Plath, John Lennon, Truman Capote, and many others.

Though the profiled artists lived very different lives, a recurring theme is early trauma, such as the childhood loss of a parent or sibling. A fixation on the “replaying of trauma” is what sets creatives apart from sanguine, well-adjusted types. “Loss,” observes Schultz,

is the perfect artistic challenge. It’s the most colossal, soul-shattering why of all . . . a challenge of meaning-making. . . . The brain forces the replaying of trauma. Artists don’t choose to go back to it again and again. It chooses itself: It’s there waving, saying write about me, paint about me, sing about me. It is perfectly dense, complicated, turbulent, confusing raw material. It won’t take no for an answer.

In Carl’s novel, Dylan and Angele have troubled relationships with their families; neither felt understood at home and, as adults, they have something to prove. A corporate marketing job, whatever its upsides, offers no way to engage the complex raw material of Angele’s past and present: no way to wrest some meaning from her very life.

Artists are notoriously difficult to deal with, however. Even the relatively nice ones (ahem!) tend to be quirky and aloof. Returning to the Big 5 traits, artists are low in “conscientiousness” and generally dismissive of rules and structure.

They also probably want to get away from you as soon as possible. “Being an artist,” Schultz explains, “means spending time apart from other people. . . . You sit in a room by yourself and make things. You isolate. You focus your attention and energies inward.”

At one point, Schultz presents a rogue’s gallery of problems common to artists. Does this remind you of some terrible person you know . . . or, er, yourself?

● Unclear identity and unstable goals

● Excessive fantasizing and daydreaming

● A nonconformity that interferes with vocational success

● Disconnectedness from social groups because of a fiercely idiosyncratic personality

● An overabsorption with feelings to the detriment of clear thinking

Oh boy. Maybe we are a bit insufferable.

“There’s a narcissism intrinsic to creative work,” Schultz notes blandly, in case a few of our spouses have not yet left us.

It’s not ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ narcissism; it’s not about exploitation or lack of empathy. It has more to do with a sense of specialness and a feeling that rules don’t apply. Even artists with no notoriety, no tangible accomplishments, have to sense, at some basic level, a uniqueness . . . You can’t make art without feeling there’s something in you that sets you apart.

This is why Angele and Dylan always connect: Both feel unique, set apart, driven to push themselves creatively and spiritually in order to make art that’s powerful and true. By being wide-open to life and possibilities of meaning, these young bohemians run the risk of finding themselves on intimate terms with God.

And if they’re idiosyncratic—well, so what? Carl's novel is compelling, beautifully written, and true to life. Wherever these characters go, you want to follow.

In the 1984 cult classic movie, This is Spinal Tap, a documentary-style camera crew accompanies a heavy metal band on tour, recording one hilarious exploit after another. The band’s aging enfants terribles hit every note on Schultz’s list, alternately obnoxious, petulant, clueless, and grandiose. Yet there is something brave and noble in their indefatigable determination to make music. However badly they behave, you’re rooting for them the whole time.

This film obsessed me for an entire summer of my teenage years, and one line stays with me to this day.

After learning that the rooms he booked are not available, the band manager starts berating a homely, bespectacled hotel clerk.

The clerk delivers the best possible response to criticism of an unchosen trait, whether looks, height, or the more-or-less inborn personality of an artist:

“I’m just as God made me, sir.”

(Image: Albert Bridge/The artist's easel, Lisbon; via Creative Commons)

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