Creativity & Pain

A friend from back East recently asked whether I’d ever explored the linkage between pain and creativity. She reflected on the profuse creativity of Frida Kahlo who suffered tremendous physical pain and Van Gogh who painted beautifully in the midst of deep emotional turmoil. Yet she observed there are those whose creativity grinds to halt citing her own season of physical pain that left her unable to be creative – no art, no writing, no nothing. That left her wondering about the whys and why nots of creativity and its relationship to pain.

Thankfully I’ve never experienced a season of physical pain so I can’t speak to its impact on my creativity. But knowing I have an inclination to hunker down, turn inward and become self-absorbed when suffering physically, I have a hunch the opening up opportunities of my creativity would be impacted. On the other hand, a certain portion of my creativity is related to processing emotional pain. The art work in the gallery below are examples.

At thirty-nine our daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer which involved an initial lumpectomy, follow-up chemotherapy, and ultimately a double mastectomy, reconstruction and partial hysterectomy. At the time we lived across the country from one another so during the early stages of her treatment I occupied my fear and anxiety with piecing together a zillion scraps into whole cloth, cutting it into new bias blocks and sashing it with stars and suns. Her quilt became my handmade prayer for transforming the crazy fragments of this experience into something beautiful without sacrificing the reality of the scars.  See Stars & Scars, the first image in the blog gallery.


The following summer I spent six weeks caring for her during the second surgeries and subsequent recovery. In the hospital I began A Complex Good an art journal of her journey through these more aggressive steps of breast cancer treatment. The second image Stars & Scars (in this blog’s photo gallery) tells about the creative solace I experienced making this quilt. The third painting Chemo Roses memorializes the single long-stem roses that arrived every three weeks during her chemotherapy to brighten an otherwise dark day – gifts from her mother-in-law. The fourth painting  An Amazing “Feet” records our daughter’s desire for a pedicure as the poignant place of beginning to come to terms with her new body.

It took me a month to finish the art journal after returning home and then I plunged back into the routine of my life. Within several weeks I found myself progressively irritated with my husband. Since he is a really good guy AND I’ve gained some emotional maturity over the years, it occurred to me that maybe my irritability was about my own residual pain unprocessed over the prior months.  

Soon I scheduled a personal retreat at Mt Calvary Monastery (a total loss in the recent Tea Fire that swept through the foothills of Santa Barbara), my favorite place of renewal. Cloistered in a small, sparsely furnished room, I surrounded myself for three days with glue sticks, scissors, a small selection of magazines and art catalogs, and two painted cardboard support structures that had originally begun life as bottle separators in cases of Trader Joe’s wine affectionately known as Two Buck Chuck. When I’d pulled the cardboard innards out of their boxes I was reminded of the tall, spare chapels that line the nave of  Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles’ new cathedral. It wasn’t a big leap (at least for me) to imagine these cardboard pieces as a series of tall chapels – one where I could pour out my pain, its many manifestations in my everyday life, and the other where I could begin to reconnect with my gratitude.

I began to collect images that resonated with me. The fifth image in the blog gallery features a rhinoceros wrapped in Saran wrap, a totally accurate image of what my internal irritability felt like, surrounded by characters from Alice in Wonderland. Like Alice, I felt like I’d fallen down a rabbit hole and was trying to find my way. And I felt like the Queen of Hearts ready to shout “off with their heads” given the slightest provocation. This was the beginning piece of what I call my Chapels of Confession – the place of pouring out my pain. Before long I began to come across images that spoke of beauty, comfort and assurance. Chapels of gratitude began to emerge in the second cardboard structure. I worked meditatively back and forth between them for three days. At the end, all the gratitude “chapels” were filled; several of the “chapels of confession” still remain empty.

The sixth and final image in the blog gallery is from the Chapels of Gratitude  and features a heralding angel superimposed on a composite image of Mary (not coincidentally my first name). The text below reads in part “Let it be (to me) according to your Word.”  Acceptance.

I came down off the mountain with my pain integrated in image and my irritability gone. Integrated gratitude remains. I’ll accept that.

How have creativity and pain partnered in your life? Has your creativity come to a complete halt when faced with physical and/or emotional pain? What are some of the ways creativity has helped you move through pain to a place of gratitude? 

I look forward to your comments so we can learn from and be inspired by one another.

For another example see Grief under Spiritual Autobiography.

8 comments to Creativity & Pain

  • Ann

    Love the posts Lynne.

    As you know this time last year I began my journey through the worst emotional pain I can ever remember. Now, as I reflect back, I know I wouldn’t be where I am today had I not experienced that pain. I was at complete creative stand still for months. However, once I got over the “hump” I used that pain to become more determined than ever to succeed!

    At almost a year to the day of my emotional ordeal my creative energy is in high gear!

    Keep up the good work!


  • Sara Blackburn

    My life has felt like constant irritation over the past months, maybe even years. I’ve lost touch with who I am as me. I am currently defined by my husband, my child and my students (all who I love, but I’ve lost myself in them.) I have been toying with the idea of a personal retreat and even have an idea of where I will go. Your blog solidifies my need for a few days with just me, God and some art supplies. Thank you again for sharing so openly.

  • Deanna J Bowling

    I am reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, “Eat, Pray and Love.” (For what was ‘supposedly’ a light read for me, it is really affecting me). I have this sense that i need to get away for a few days and give myself a chance to get an attitude adjustment. The othernight, after a weekend of celebrating birthdays, etc., here at the house, I was still doing some one else’s dishes at midnight so I wouldn’t have to face them in the morning (I know, I know), and wound up hurting myself. I have a history of having to go to the point of pain before I figure out just how upset I really am, and have done it again – I was just about to call the doctor when I found your e-mail this morning.

    Thank you for this posting.


  • Renee Phillips

    After my mom died my sister and I went through her things at the request of our dad. When I came across her knitting needles and yarns I was flooded with memories. I took all those remaining yarn odds and ends and began knitting. With the lighter weight yarns I knitted many many infant receiving blankets. (A friend of mine was a neonatal nurse and at her hospital when babies did not live they would photograph them bundled up in these blankets and then give the parents the photo and blanket as a tangible reminder of their precious baby.). With the heavier weight yarns I knitted a multi-hued striped huge blanket that our whole family could snuggle under while watching movies together. Our boys were 7 and 10 at the time. As I spent the year following my mom’s death knitting I cherished the memories that each yarn brought. I so well remembered the beautiful garments Mom had knit. It was a good, but also a very neccessary way to process my grief.

  • Hi Lynne,
    I am blessed with your website and reading about these ideas that you have developed. You have such an abundance of life to give and I am glad to know you. Thanks so much for being vulnerable enough to post stories like this and share with all of us these deep things that we all go through. It is nice to know I am not alone in the desert (or mountain tops), but you too have been there. I am off on my own journey next week going up the western coast from LA to Seattle. I will take your lead and to journal and paint my way along the way. I hope to have some things to post about when I return. Keep up the amazing work you are doing. We all need it. Peace, Rich

  • Lynne

    Thanks, Rich. For those of you who don’t know, Rich is the fabulous web guy who patiently taught me to create my website. Follow the link on my site to his. You’ll be in for a treat.

  • Lynne, it is such a pleasure to know you through BuildaBridge conference. Sara shared your site with me at your request and I am so glad she did. Just this week I started a study from Women of Faith called Discovering Joy in Your Creativity by Margaret Feinberg. It is challenging. I have always been creative to the point of the wildest imagination I know! Even just riding down the road going to Tulsa to see Hannah, our granddaughter, my mind thinks of what might happen and I verbally share it with my husband who graciously listens to some wild tales. I love to write and to paint in all media. BUT, yes, I am stifled sometimes by emotional pain because I’m afraid of what it might portray on paper.

    (My website shows a different kind of creative stifling! YIKES)

    I don’t want to be an artist who paints darkness and hatred because I’m living a tough time in some areas of my life. You have encouraged me to create with free abandon and see what God tells me through my creativity. Maybe there is something there I need to face, deal with and move on. You know, sometimes it feels like I have dealt with everything, accepted those things I cannot change, then other times there is this nagging in the back of my mind that won’t go away and I don’t know how to bring it forward to face it. I think the idea of a personal retreat is fabulous and I have a husband who would not only ‘allow’ it but encourage me to do it.

    Thank you, Lynne, so much for your candidness in sharing your pain. Gosh, I wish we’d have had more time to talk and get to know each other in Philly last June.

  • I am much encouraged to read of your experiences with creativity and pain. Thank you.

    I have been writing writing writing for several years now as a way of processing a long overdue and very painful journey towards emotional healing.
    I have more than 1,000 pieces to date and the flood shows no sign of abating as yet. Some are too painful to share. Some are not and being able to share them has been a healing experience for me and for those I have shared them with. My words have given me a place to process the pain of the past, and the present, and a record of the healing received along the way.
    I often struggle to hold onto the good in my life yet even I find it hard to argue with words that I know sprang from the very heights and depths of my experience. I can re-read and remember the truth of those moments and receive the strength to go on.
    And yet sometimes I look back and have no interest in the pieces I have written for the wounds are healed and gone. That is a very good feeling and requires yet more words – but of thankfulness this time.

    I find that I write of the darkness as well as the light and I believe God often shows me where I am going through my words. I start out from a place of great pain and end up marvelling at the promise I find in the words I have been given. Initially I could not write about the darkness except through the coded words of poetry but as I have journeyed on I have found myself able to be more open about the reality that prompts me to write in the first place.

    I don’t think God would have gifted me with the ability to express the darkness if it wasn’t necessary; think of the book of psalms! Jesus came because we needed him. Perhaps it would be dishonouring if I did not allow my creativity to express that reality and somehow share the suffering he bore so that I might be healed.
    I am frequently reminded of the fact that ‘Jesus wept’ and that he asks me to clean the inside of the cup before the outside. Above all else I feel called to be honest at last. If I don’t express my pain and give it to him through my writing and my tears – he cannot heal it.

    I admit I was hoping for a more zapping kind of healing but it seems that Jesus words on the cross are for me too. I can cry out my anguish and pain and feel forsaken and afraid and yet still find the mustard seed of faith to give it all into his hands, knowing that the promise of the resurrection will follow the darkness of the grave.

    Will the flow cease when all is well and the promise is fulfilled that the tears and mourning will be no more?
    I wonder.
    But I do know that as the pain is healed I am more and more able to express the joy that I find in meeting him in the world around me – so maybe this gift for today will turn out to be for tomorrow as well – now that would be a gift indeed!

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>