Creativity & Death

At a recent interview, the featured artist when asked what motivated her creativity said she believed people created because they are afraid of death. Really! I’ve been thinking about that philosophy of creativity all week. Do I really create because I’m afraid of death? Am I afraid of death? I’ll be among the first to raise my hand that I’m afraid of the physical suffering of death. I’d love to be courageous and inspiring in the midst of suffering, but I’m not sure I have it in me.

The day I retired as a therapist one of my closest friends was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Patty was an amazingly competent woman and accustomed to being in control of her life. While she wasn’t in control of the disease that eventually overwhelmed her, she remained in control in other ways. From time to time, as the summer and her disease progressed, she would catch me working in my studio. The phone would ring, I’d answer it, and her measured request would always be “Say something wise.” And I would burst into tears and sob for the duration of our conversation, offering what comfort I could muster while wiping my bubbling nose on my sleeves. I don’t remember that she cried at all during these calls. My grief, for me, for her, was a strange kind of substitutionary suffering done on her behalf that helped her creativiely cope with leaving behind a husband and three college-age daughters.  Patty wasn’t afraid of dying; she was confident of the hope before her.

But do I create because I’m afraid of death? Like Patty, I’m not afraid of death. I share the same hope. But what about my desire to leave a legacy through my creativity? I’m at an age where I’m beginning to thin out and discard “stuff” – those must-haves and precious objects redolent with family history and story. It’s given me a heads up that much of what I’ve created will someday be thinned and discarded by others, and God forbid, find its way to the walls of thrift stores. And I’m not afraid of that…well, maybe the thrift stores a little.

With Fall approaching, that thinning out time,  it’s easy for me to think about my creativity as being a bit like an oak tree that does what oak trees do – invest its life sending down deep tap roots , becoming more robust as growth rings are added year by year, spreading its canopied influence of branches and leaves, producing acorns with the potential for new growth. Yet at some mysterious autumnal moment, all that fecundity begins to shift;  the oak sheds it leaves and acorns are squirrel away for future nourishment. The pseudo death of winter arrives hiding hope in its hip pocket. I hope that’s what my long life of creativity has been about. Not fear of death, but an abundant fecundity that leads to a generous dying providing compost for some and nourishment for others. I’m sure it’s not about fear of death. Really!

How about you? Do you believe that people create because they’re afraid of death? How would you answer the question why people create? How are creativity and death related? 

Really anxious to hear what you have to say.

PS – September 11th marked the 15th anniversary of Patty’s death.

10 comments to Creativity & Death

  • Judy Siudara

    I have been pondering death lately , since my 89- yr.old second father has been admitted to a nursing home. But this link between creativity and death makes me wonder if it may be the other way around- death or it impending, may decrease or cease creativity , perhaps as a protection against a bigger loss, death. I am not afraid of death but I find my creativity is affected by too much of this world, by necessity, not invitatation. Very interesting subject; like to hear comments. Judy

  • Deanna J Bowling

    I am finding that at 67, I am more aware of my impending death, than being afraid of it. Like Lynne said, though, I am not looking forward to experiencing whatever will eventually be the cause my death. I am now feeling a sense of wanting to be creative, rather than just productive. I was known for my productivity during my entire work life.

    Sitting here I just flashed on a memory of my mother saying that it was always hard for her to get me to go to sleep when I was little, as if it was like I was afraid that I would miss something if I gave in to sleep. Then I started suffering from emotional illness after my parents divorced when I was 10 years old. I used sleep as a diversion. I am still prone to some depression, but over all am doing much better.

    Now I am getting back to being that little girl who tried to avoid going to sleep because I don’t want to miss anything.

  • Robin Rice

    I am sitting here considering the questions. I read, re-read, and read once again what you have written. Then I asked myself, why do I keep reading this over and over? What am I looking for? I guess I feel that the link is so unexpected, we create because we fear death, as if death is some sort of motivator for how we live? Can one live with a conscious fear of death? What overwhelming anxiety that would cause. I am guessing that the artist you quote was referring to some deeper, unconscious fear of death. I have heard tell that animals are different in behavior than people because they do not have a sense of the limit of self, they don’t know they are going to die. Yet animals live to protect themselves, they do things to survive and they play.
    No, I just can’t wrap my mind around some underlying fear of death driving me. I don’t think about death much at all. I think about life, I think about the next minute of time. When I create I am transferring a deep spiritual, emotional happiness or sadness into another form, letting it take shape so that I can touch it, see it, taste it, experience it again and again. In this way I come to grips with it. When I start to think about value or worth (e.g. how much can I sell this for) it takes away the joy of the creation. The creativity if for me alone. I might share, but there are many times when that is not the point at all.
    xx Robin

  • I am 64 and while I sometimes lament precious time I have wasted in this life, I don’t believe I create because I am afraid of death. Although, like you, Lynne,I do fear I won’t be able to die graciously letting the hope of a new life overshadow possible pain and suffering in the dying process.

    But, I create because I love life and the living world around me. Maybe that is a strange twist in being afraid of death…do I create because I want to hang on to life, because it makes me feel an integral part of that world that I am painting? In feeling that oneness with God’s creation I am also humbled to realize what a very small part of God’s creation I am and how He loves me so much that He created a way for me to be with Him forever, even after physical death. So, like the Fall process of dying and renewing in the Spring, we are all going forth in the same way. I create because I love.

  • Lynn Maya

    I too think that the original thought may have been the unconscious fear of death is what drives creativity. Well, if it’s unconscious then I am REALLY not aware of that motivation. I’m still not terribly clear at all what does or does not motivate me to create. I once heard the theory that humans started painting in caves as a spiritual quest, perhaps to leave somthing of themselves, to say they had been there, and MAYBE that is in response to the fear of death…
    Provocative thoughts…

  • Deanna J Bowling

    Another thought. I saw one of my doctors today. This weekend is the 18th anniversary of the day that he accepted me as his patient. And the first time I have seen the 7th office he has had during those 18 years.

    The decor of his latest office reminds me of a man who wears pin-stripped suits moving into an old spanish adobe house. The moves he has made over the years, and how he has decorated each of his offices, to my mind, are indicative of the major changes in his life during the years I have known him.

    Similar to what Lynn Maya alluded to, the changes I have witnessed may be his desire to “date stamp” where he’s been and when, and how he was doing at the time.

    Just a thought …

  • Tara Morris

    I believe God gave us five senses and a heart, that are developed when allowed to be creative. It grounds me to celebrate that and it feels good. And I also believe if there is a beginning there will be an end, sometimes sooner than later. One thing came to mind that it can be difficult to feel done when creating. Possibly that is the connection to death for the speaker because there is a whole physical and psychological attachment that has come to an end.

    When I was in design school I made a small tray table in a woodworking class that consumed me, (like all projects) at the time I told Brian “I am making a family heirloom” because I was thinking forever… Wouldn’t you know just this week I was considering options as to where this table will reside. The conclusion was to hang the tray on my wall and appreciate it in a new way.

    Lynne, I will forever think of you as a graceful oak tree, what a beautiful analogy. Did you know, your memorial quilt of Brian celebrates your creativity and his life and death all wrapped up in warmth and comfort? It blesses me every time we use it.

  • Amy Tuttle

    I have never considered this concept before either. I think that creativity could be an act of rebellion against death. Much of my work is related to social justice and I find myself using art as a protest to things that are antithetical to life- like rape, extreme poverty, racism. However, a whole other vein of my creativity is dedicated to the celebration of life, culture, experiences, etc. I see this as celebrative art and it springs from hope and a sense of play, not from a fear of death.
    I love the statement that you made about your motivations that come from “an abundant fecundity that leads to a generous dying providing compost for some and nourishment for others. I’m sure it’s not about fear of death.” This statement reminds me of this amazing little book entitles “That which never dies.” It tells the story of a tree in its different life forms, making the point that it shifts from the form of a tree to fertilizer- yet it still provides life.
    Thanks for sharing your blogs!
    Amy Tuttle

  • I too have actually been thinking about the relationship of death and creativity. Last summer my dad died suddenly from an aortic aneurysm. Nobody was prepared so we were all caught by surprise. The week that he died, I was scheduled to be in an outdoor painting competition in San Clemente, CA. I had booked a campsite for the week as well.

    The day after the funeral I went ahead and packed my things and drove to the campsite. Although I only managed to do a single simple coastal painting that I will never sell, the trip provided me with a time of solace and contemplation that I desperately needed. I spent many hours on the seashore. Watching the sky, the birds, and dolphins. I watched the rolling waves that continued, one-right-after-another and continued and continued. To this day they continue, just as the days continue to go from the dawn of morning to a transitional dusk of night. As I watched the waves, I realized then that something was stirring deep within me. I was becoming very aware that we do not have unending days on this planet. Unlike the waves that continue and the days that come and go, my mornings here are numbered and I know not that number.

    After 4 days of this, I left the beach with a new resolve to transition into a purposeful planning time and figure out what I was going to be when I grow up. With Dad gone, I could no longer call him for that reassuring voice that told me I was on the right path, or his hesitation when he saw need for an adjustment in the course. Through his life, I learned to be an optimist. I am a glass 2/4 full kinda guy. So, today I am a full-time artist and in the midst of a new adventure called Blue Sky Art Center. It is an art center that exists to be “a shelter for a sacred creative community; to facilitate personal and social change with the transformative power of creating art and through exhibitions, education and outreach; to create a forum for cultural engagement centered on contemporary social issues.” I have started teaching some basic art classes and I look forward to being able to host classes that you and others will eventually be teaching and want to thank YOU Lynne for all the encouragement over these past years as well.

    Rich Brimer

  • Pam

    Problems inspire my creativity not death. How can I solve this problem?
    There is a interesting talk on another aspect of creativity
    on by J.J.Abrams.

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