That’s pretty disciplined to me—living primarily in service to one’s art. But we also hear the other myth: that you must live yourself out.
You know the cliché: You’re out on the town, you’re doing drugs, you’re drinking, you’re running on the walls, you’re pissing on the fireplace. It’s a cliché. Often you run into artists who live that life—and at one point, you find out that they’re not actually producing that much art. They’re living the life of the artist without the work.
If you live the kind of life that [Ingmar] Bergman does—spending long hours in solitude, working with your art—sometimes people use medicine to smooth things over. They drink or take pills or whatever they do in order to deal with the painful sides of this. But so do people who don’t produce art. It’s not like only artists drink to cope. Doing so doesn’t make you more interesting or creative—and it may even destroy you.
Bergman wrote down an interesting story about a young actress who was teasing him for being too controlled—that he was not wild enough, and he didn’t drink enough, and he didn’t do this and that enough. And he says, well, she ended up in an insane asylum without teeth in her mouth, 50 years old. That’s what she got from living herself out.
We can separate artistic pain, the experience of feeling deeply, from leading a painful life. One is not a requirement for the other. What’s interesting about Bergman—he shows you can use your demons to pull your way through life. You can use them for good things instead of trying to let them destroy you. He wrote a diary every day of his life, and quotes can be read in the book called Images. One entry in particular captures the idea about the link between pain and creativity:
Here, in my solitude, I have the feeling that I contain too much humanity.
Solitude, I think, heightens artistic receptivity in a way that can be challenging and painful. When you sit there, alone and working, you get thrown back on yourself. Your life and your emotions, what you think and what you feel, are constantly being thrown back on you. And then the “too much humanity” feeling is even stronger: you can’t run away from yourself. You can’t run away from your emotions and your memory and the material you’re working on. Artistic solitude is a decision to turn and face these feelings, to sit with them for long periods of time.
It takes the courage to be there. You run into your own pettiness. Your own cowardice. You run into all kinds of ugly sides of yourself. But the things that you’ve experienced in your life become the writing that you do.
— Dorthe Nors, on Ingmar Bergman, solitude, and artistry