Must You Suffer To Be Great?

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“Despite popular conviction, a writer needn’t wear black, be unshaven, sickly and parade around New York’s East Village spewing aphorisms and scaring children” ~Noah Lukeman

There’s a scene in the 1986 movie Crossroads where a young Eugene Martone, aka Lightning Boy is wandering the deep South, trying to learn how to play the blues from aged bluesman, Willie Brown. A Julliard trained classical guitarist, Lightning’s got the speed, the technique, but that ain’t the blues. To play the blues, he’s told, you’ve got to FEEL the blues. To feel the pain of love lost, of hope lost, of sorrow. Because that’s the place the real blues comes from. You can’t play the blues if you’ve never been blue.

Willie: Why do you want to know about all that stuff?
Eugene: I’m a blues man.
Willie: A blues man? [starts laughing]
Willie: Where you from, boy?
Eugene: Well, I was born in Long Island.
Willie: Oh, Long Island aww shit, this is rich! Long Island: the famous ‘breeding ground’ for blues men!

The scene resonated. A few years earlier, I’d spent the summer living in the famed East Hampton, playground for the ultra-wealthy. I drove a 1971 Volkswagon Rabbit that I’d bought with 90,000 miles on it for $800 and had repainted at Earl Sheib’s for another $99. And, I’d soon learn the chassy was so rotten that at any given moment the seats could drop out of the car. I was painting houses, living pretty much hand to mouth and renting a bedroom in a small A-frame owned by a big East End builder. I had nothing compared to the world around me, but I had enough. So, I was happy.

In the other bedroom lived Tommy. Can’t for the life of me remember his last name. Lanky, blond and freckled, Tommy’s dad owned the place. And he was learning the family business over the summer. But, that wasn’t Tommy’s dream. He wanted to be a writer. A REAL writer. Like the greats. But that little voice inside him said, if you want to be great, you’ve got to FEEL the blues. You have to suffer.

So, at summer’s end, he planned a sojourn that would take him across the country in a beat up old station wagon. Starting out with $10 in his pocket and a stack of blank notebooks. He wanted to live hard, to feel the pain. So he could connect with that wellspring of angst that seemed to fuel the greats.

I’ve heard a similar refrain from a number of friends who’ve sought artistic relevance as they prepared to set off on a pain-seeking hiatus from a life of privilege.

Problem is…it’s bullshit. On two levels.

One, the pain that fuels creative mastery can’t be artificially induced. It can’t have a kill switch.

It’s got to be born of genuine experience, of deep immersion in the process of life, of vulnerability to luscious highs, consuming love, mad passions and crushing loss. Of transformative first-hand experiences and observations. Of the knowledge that you’ve got no exit but the course of time. That’s where richest creative cauldron most often simmers. If you can yell “cut” at any time and walk away, it’s just not real. Not enough to open the floodgates on a level that matters.

Two, it’s not about pain.

It IS about engagement. You don’t need to suffer, you need to live. You don’t need to lose, you need to be open to risk. You need to feel what it’s like to stick your neck out and be judged. You need to dance with uncertainty. You need to pursue passion with breathless zest. You need to sit in a moment, alone in a sunwashed field and let every sense flood. It’s not about suffering. It’s about being present. It’s about connecting to what’s real and what’s not. It’s about allowing yourself to feel. Be it from the back of a station wagon in the deep South or a pied-à-terre on Park Ave. It’s about being real.

Because that’s where the good stuff happens. Where creation breaths and grows.

That’s when life becomes worth writing about.

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40 responses

40 responses to “Must You Suffer To Be Great?”

  1. Thanks, Jonathon. Insightful post. I agree it is about engaging life.

    I will add that it is also different for everyone and that everyone ‘suffers’ or experiences ‘pain’ from where they are. Even Tommy, growing up with money, wanting to write, but strongly encouraged to work in the family business. It’s about honoring where you are at and your own experiences and sharing and engaging from that standpoint.


    • Jonathan Fields says:

      True, Sandy, for Tommy to be able to draw on the emotion created by his desire to do something other than what was expected by his parents, though, he didn’t have to GO anywhere or CREATE anything. He just had to sit. To engage. You could even argue the real reason for his trip was to escape his true pain, now explore it.

  2. Nice post. But I don’t think Tommy’s trip was so wrong-headed. If you start out on a trip with little or no money, you’re forced to interact with people. It pushes you into the mix. You have to scrounge for money and favors and friends. This is especially true if you go alone. My travels in my 20s were 10x more memorable than my current money-buffered junkets, and though you could certainly make a case that they didn’t transform me into the kind of artist I wanted to be, they pushed me into the hurly burly of life.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      I agree, Tommy’s trip had value, but not because it created an artificially induced sense of suffering, because it brought him closer to life unfiltered. To people, places and situations that were novel…the hurly burly of life. And, that’s were the magic happens.

  3. Ed Gandia says:

    Beautifully said, Jonathan. You know…there’s enough cool and unique stuff happening in our lives to be trying to live someone else’s “movie.” I say live your life the way you think it ought to be lived. Be authentic. Live the moment. Welcome the unexpected. Embrace your uniqueness. And write about that.

    That’s what people want — authenticity.

  4. Hey Jonathan,
    I’m with you on this! Shaking up your life and having a new experience can fill the creative well. But “creating” pain for pain sake, to feel what it feels like to suffer for your art, is silliness.

    My experience is, life will hand you plenty of “growth opportunities” without having to look for it.

    I think one can be wildly creative without having “consuming love, mad passions and crushing loss.” It might be that non of those things have happened in your life that makes your story and expression of it so fascinating.

    And you’re right, it is in the end, about being real. Rich creativity, the kind that’s imposable not to respond to is the kind that’s simply honest.

    Greatness, I think, comes from being willing to find your own way to the inside of your own bones. Creative greatness is being able to express what it’s like once you’re there.

  5. Great message here Jonathan. Pain is only a downside which is definitely not required, it’s engagement that makes the difference!

  6. Angela says:

    Eudora Welty sprung to mind immediately for me as one example of a person whose literary achievements are vast, who lived a life of privilege, and whose creative voice didn’t rise out of pain or “the blues.”

    There are many unique ways to fuel creative greatness as others have stated, but I agree that experiencing “the blues” isn’t a prerequisite!

  7. Mark Cahill says:

    Right on the money!

    Simply going through the motions doesn’t get the job done. We don’t get points in creativity just for showing up. One size most certainly does not fit all…

    Part of the human experience is walking down our own path. When we try to walk in someone else’s shoes, we lose our way.


  8. Mike CJ says:

    I want to add to the post. I want to disagree with something in it, to start a debate. Above all I want to avoid using that very American word “resonate.”

    But I can’t do any of those things. All I can say is: Great, great post, which really, really resonated with me.

  9. Suzyn says:

    Really fabulous post!

  10. “You don’t need to suffer, you need to live.” <– awesometastic

    That's really what is about, being engaged in life, living every day (even the "ordinary" days) as an adventure, really seeing people, really being connected. That's the way to be able to create art (whether that's writing, or whatever else).

  11. Sean Platt says:

    Ha, my partner and I debate this on occasion. Though we see eye to eye on most things, we tend to part ways here. Last year I wrote a post called, “The Myth of the Tortured Writer,” to which he followed up with his own “I Need the Pain!” style post.

    That myth is probably one of the things that kept me from writing for the first thirty or so years of my life. I don’t believe you need pain to be great. I’m a good writer and I get better every day. And I’m happy. Yes, I’m having a few struggles in my life. But I want them gone. I think my writing will only improve in their absence.

  12. Mrs. Micah says:

    Great post. It’s something I’ve struggled with too. On the one hand, I’ve experienced pain and loss and crippling depression, all before the age of 24. So my life hasn’t been charmed. But on the other, I’ve always known where my next meal was coming from, always had parents who loved me (even if I was the one caring for them), always had someone in my life who I knew would step in and care for me if tragedy struck. I’ve never been homeless, never gone hungry, never worked my way up from the bottom. Nor have I devoured all the works in any one genre, though I favor some more than others, so I feel lacking when compared to some incredibly well-read authors.

    Next time I let that bar me from making an effort, I’ll remember your post. At least I’m trying to engage life. 🙂

  13. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Chris Brogan, Jonathan Fields, Inc. Magazine, SarahRobinson, Cali Williams Yost and others. Cali Williams Yost said: Reading and agreeing with @jonathanfields: Must You Suffer To Be Great? […]

  14. Sean Aiken says:


    I’ve traveled extensively searching for myself, inspiration, who I want to be – but no matter how far we travel, how many people we meet, the one thing we can never escape is ourselves. The secret lies with being present to this moment, regardless of where you are, who you are with, or what your financial situation may be.

  15. Nicky Hajal says:

    Writing, and creating in general, is about *expressing* something. So, if you are deeply pained, that’s one thing that can be expressed.

    But there are more emotions to work with than pain alone. Living fully cultivates all of them and that is more inspirational than any one on its own.

    Not to mention, pain and pleasure, sadness and happiness, struggle and success are all package deals. More of one means more of the other.

    And that’s where creating to express both sides of each emotion becomes the way to find peace despite it all.


  16. Tom says:

    Oh yes, inducing pain to the self, isn’t (wasn’t) what the EMO scene is/was about? 🙂

  17. LisaNewton says:

    “You don’t need to lose, you need to be open to risk.”

    For me, this says it all. People are different and if someone needs to “feel the pain” to get to where they want to go, then more power to them.

    I just wonder how long they need to fell the pain before they have felt enough.

  18. Hey Jonathan:

    It’s just about the experience.

    However, it seems to me that you kind of disagreed with your own point in this article.

    Some people call it blues, some people call it living or suffering or whatever. It is just a matter of semantics, at least to me.

    They all point to the same direction: experiencing life in such a way that it makes you rethink and reevaluate your experiences up this point of time.

    Weather forced or occurring naturally, experiences are about learning. It might be bullshit that people seek to force pain upon themselves, but it is their of life and they have to live and it might ultimately lead them to what they were looking for.


    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Gotta disagree, Tomas. There’s a very real difference between deliberating seeking to introduce suffering into your life as a source of creative inspiration and seeking to experience “all that life brings.” All too often, those who go too far down the former rabbit hole end up end up destroying themselves in the process, even if the creative output brings attention. Doesn’t have to be that way. There’s enough wonder and truth to inspire a lifetime of creative genius without pushing yourself into darkness

  19. I’d think that being a rich kid in your dad’s house is already a place of vulnerability and risk. You’ve got way more to lose when you’re rich!

  20. Hugh says:

    The last paragraph of your post is one of the best you’ve written here. A succinct representation of your philosophy it seems. Thanks for the continued inspiration…

  21. Absolutely agree Jonathan.

    Live your life not soemtone elses. You need to be present and you need to be engaged. Not just passing through on someone elses dream.

  22. Mr Fields, you pretty much nailed it with “can’t have a kill switch.”

    I agree with the several comments above: had Tommy wanted to really suffer, he would have stayed and learn the family business, and built his writing career alongside his responsibilities.

    Not being to open that, I doubt any number of cross-country hitchhiking trips (or whatever) would cure what ailed him.

    But, at least he was trying!

  23. I totally agree that it is not about “pain”, but about being engaged. Being present, fully experiencing life. Naturally there will be highs and lows, and I do think it is important to have the lows, not just for creativity, but for an awareness and an appreciation of how great the highs are. I agree with you mostly about the not being able to simulate grief and hardship when you can hit the “kill switch” at any time, but I do have to say that heading on a journey with less than you feel comfortable with money wise and stuff, whether simulated or not, CAN spark personal growth and could end up being a transformative journey, I just don’t think it’s a guarantee. I think there is still value in this, in that inevitably, you will learn valuable information about yourself, how you handle yourself, how to lean on others, how to put yourself out there, how to hustle, how to survive. I think that it really just depends on where your head is at and where your motivations lie. ANyway, my point is that I think that the things that you can learn in the difficult times about yourself, simulated or otherwise, are things that you can add to your life toolbelt.

  24. Great thought-provoking article btw!!!

  25. Absolutely! I’m very passionate about challenging the age old belief system that we are down here on earth having this human experience to suffer in any way. Being fully present in the moment is much more connected to our purpose and when we do that, we find our voice and how we want to serve others.

  26. Jonathan,

    Well put and totally true. The most artistic and creative of endeavors are borne not out of pain, not out of suffering, but out of passion. When we are not simply involved, but are totally consumed by a pursuit. That’s where the good stuff comes from. And you just can’t fake that.



  27. Wow, I really like this post. In itself it puts into words which is many times too obvious to see.

  28. Matt says:

    Man, you had me at Crossroads.
    Every white kid who owned a guitar and a Lightning Hopkins album believed in that movie.

  29. Ben says:

    Great post dude!

    You’ve got to live your life and take from it what you take from it. Just like you said you can’t artificially switch it on and off. You see too many people trying to force things in life just so they can experience them.

  30. […] I’ve started to apply this approach to all areas of my life; seeing each aspect of my life as an art that can be met with love, instead of a duty of sacrifice. We don’t need to suffer to be great. […]

  31. […] you suffer to be great? Must You Suffer To Be Great? "… A few years earlier, I’d spent the summer living in the famed East Hampton, playground […]

  32. […] Fields de Awake at the Wheel hablaba hace poco de si hay que sufrir para ser un grande. La cuestión es esta: ¿tienes que convertirte en alcohólico para experimentar lo mismo que […]

  33. Matias says:

    Great post Jonathan!!
    I totally agree with you. No one can seek for pain in order to “fuel” their graetness… And some people may not agree. However, your post shows everyone one truth: That “pain” must be a sorprise… If you´re expecting it, it wont help you at all…

    Anyway, it´s been a while since i dont write in english so… that´s it 😛


  34. Monek Guz says:

    Fantastic post Jonathan. I strongly agree with you. If you want to be successful you need to be open to risk and not be afraid to fail.

  35. I agree with you Jonathan. You don´t need to suffer to be great, but you have to really work hard and really want it. Regards.

  36. Pat says:

    Amazing post. I think that you must not suffer to be great, but you have to make an effort, you need to be open to risk, and you really need to have hope, in the face of uncertainty and difficulties. Thanks Jonathan.