My social media feeds are packed with the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, and I can’t help but wonder when we’re going to get to the heart of the matter. Sure, we’ll see all the typical posts about losing another creative soul, the perils of addiction, the need for more medical interventions in mental health. But I want to know when we are going to break that cycle. When do we break the cycle of talking about the same event the same way? I guess that’s my passion as a communication scholar.
Here’s the thing – this story is not new. Lots of creative people die as a result of addiction or overdose. Why? What we should be talking about is how creativity is constructed in society – that our ideological understanding of the arts and other creative pursuits is attached to a deep, inner inspiration and drive. In other words, to truly be a great actor/writer/director/artist/musician/etc, you have to get that inspiration from somewhere. And it should be *natural* – it should come *easily* – and if it doesn’t, then perhaps you don’t have what it takes to be the next big star in any of those fields. Because there is always someone else out there who is making it look easier than you. Someone who is inspired in ways you aren’t, and ultimately, if they exist, then what’s the point of your existence?
Welcome to the mind of a creative soul. A constant self-critique and assessment of your performance in relation to those around you. And when you need to turn on the inspiration, it is – in many instances – a somewhat logical choice to use mind altering substances as a way to do it. Thousands of stories from famous creative people promote alcohol/drug use as part of the creative process. As a result, being creative becomes equated with being a user of alcohol/drugs to achieve inspiration. Sometimes it helps. Sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes it gets out of control. But this isn’t because these people are necessarily mentally ill, or necessarily in need of assistance – it’s because societally, we believe this is simply part of being a creative person.
What I’d like to see is a discussion of how being creative is a *process* – not part of an inborn, innate creative identity. A discussion of how being creative is hard, tedious work. Often very hard, very tedious work. Of how it is a constant commitment to producing a ridiculous number of failures before producing your masterpiece. Of how you resolve yourself to the fact that even when/if you produce a masterpiece, perhaps no one ever recognizes it as such (at least while you’re alive, and maybe not even posthumously). To understand that failure is not simply part and parcel of the creative process, but fundamentally that being creative is a resignation of oneself to a *potential lifetime of failure*. Until we start talking about that – until we start redefining what the “creative” means communicatively, or what we expect the outcomes of the creative process to be so as to redefine what constitutes “success” and “failure” in these areas, we will continue to see this story repeated. We will continue to lose creative souls because at the very base of it, culture is often inhospitable to creative people.