Both fragmented and fused with the hands of experience, the creative mind isn’t so different from a stained-glass window. A mosaic of memory and morrow. Splinters of what was and what could be. Colored moments and shards of emotion, all patterned together within a single frame. An immeasurable kind beauty that couldn’t exist without the breaks and the stains.
In a biographical look at Vincent van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Ernest Hemingway, Maya Angelou, John Lennon, and nearly all revered artists of history, there is something their lives all shared: breaks and stains.
Nearly all of history’s most prestigious creative minds also were some of the most traumatized. And it is no coincidence.
We know how trauma can debilitate life with post-traumatic stress. But there is something else often elicited by hardship that psychologist call ‘post-traumatic growth’. Hundreds of studies find that part of post-traumatic growth is an intense induction of creativity.
There are a few reasons for the undeniable link between trauma and creativity:
- Shattered Preconceptions
Creativity requires imagination, and imagination requires the perception of possibility beyond conventional parameters. Trauma forces shifts in perspective. It breaks right through the limiting walls of preconception that we’ve spent our lives building.
As we go through life, we collect experiences and knowledge that we use to develop deep-rooted beliefs about ourselves and our world. Our entire lives are built on those relative beliefs.
But trauma of any kind is seismically disruptive. It has the power to shatter the entire structure of what we know as life. It reset your priorities, challenges your preconceptions, and forces expanded horizons of what life is and what is possible.
- The Isolation Effect
Nothing is so isolating as chronic pain – emotional and physical. Isolation can be a dangerous place, but it is also the birthplace of some of the most successful creative minds. Many studies show how isolation can lead to a rejection of social conventions and expectations – another common trait of great creativity.
Johann Sebastian Bach, among a striking number of other creatives, was orphaned as a young child. This cruelly forced him to spend extensive time in isolation with only his own mind for company.
When trauma takes you to isolation, it takes you to that rare place with just yourself. Do you remember time alone as a child when you would “play pretend”, imagining whole new worlds and adventures? Or when you would scrawl crayons across paper in a way only your mind could envision? Make up your own songs? Chalk the sidewalk? Children are inherently creative, unhindered by preconceptions, and undaunted by being alone with their imagination.
As we move forward in life, our imaginations still live, but they easily sink dormant, buried in the back files of our mind under the responsibilities, expectations, and distractions. Perhaps we are all capable of intense creativity, but too rarely give ourselves the silence needed to hear our imagination speak.
3. Understanding and Healing
There are some moments, some experiences, some emotions that the regular word is just too flat to hold the weight of. There are some things that can only be honestly expressed in color, in frame, in song, in movement, in poetry – in creativity.
Pain isn’t just a locus for creativity. In return, creativity is a locus for healing.
Many researchers suggest that creatives channel their negative experiences into creative works as a way to cope. Creativity helps the mind understand the personal and outer world during the rebuilding process. It helps the mind make sense of the experience, then understand and express new ways of being.
Trauma induces creativity, and creativity induces post-traumatic growth.
Ernest Hemingway is among the many who endured trauma with the outcome of intense creativity. His words, perhaps entirely unintentionally, speak directly to the idea of post-traumatic growth: There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.
If trauma tears into life, fractures will be left open. But perhaps the scars and the breakages of life are not at all wounds, but rather like the cracks of a stained-glass window – necessary passageways for new light to filter in and illuminate the way forward.