By Akin Salawu, member of the 2008 Emerging Writers Group
The shocking announcement of Whitney Houston’s passing has been followed by countless outcries lamenting the pattern of brilliant and successful artists with substance abuse issues: Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Edgar Allen Poe, Paul Gaugin, Aldous Huxley, John Steinbeck, Tennessee Williams, Stephen King, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Beethoven, Ernest Hemingway…and the list goes on…
It is particularly difficult for those of us struggling to get produced to understand how so many of our successful heroes can fall prey to self-destructive behavior. However, a slightly more empathetic perspective reveals our most brilliant artists to actually be handling their personal struggles the way an oyster handles a grain of sand.
When a grain of sand gets into an oyster, the oyster does everything it can to remove the irritant. Eventually, the oyster chooses to grapple with that grain of sand by turning it into a pearl. We artists grow accustomed to molding our irritants into gems. Of course, there is great risk in turning our personal grains of creative sand into gems. We are, however, willing to risk pearling because these gems and the process of creating them help us become better people. Who’s to say that brilliant artists like Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, and Whitney Houston should not have risked pearling? Who’s to say that pearling was not the purpose of their lives?
Perhaps being an artist actually has very little to do with getting produced, getting famous, and getting enough money to pay off your student loans. Perhaps, by reaching into the darkness of an aching heart and making sense of the suffering we get to become richer and somewhat enhanced people. Perhaps the true reward of the artist’s tumultuous journey is the person being an artist allows us to become?
Akin Salawu is currently an editor on a Tru TV reality series and writing a sex trafficking stage play, a Big Bang Theory spec involving astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and a screenplay about a groundbreaking doctor at Harvard McLean.
This post is part of a weekly series from the Emerging Writers Group community of playwrights. The EWG is two-year playwriting fellowship at The Public Theater seeking to target playwrights at the earliest stages of their careers. In so doing, The Public hopes to create an artistic home for a diverse and exceptionally talented group of up-and-coming playwrights.