How Anger Can Fuel Creativity
We tend to treat being angry as a thing to be avoided. But anger and creativity can be linked. Should anger have a role in our creative process?
Anger is unfashionable, perhaps with good reason. There’s so much of it around. And it feels dangerous.
But go back a few generations and it’s not hard to find examples of the wild artist, flying into a rage, creating in a whirlwind of activity. Anger and art seemed to go together.
I can even remember a teacher describing me as having an artistic temperament. It wasn’t meant as a compliment!
While this artistic temperament has sometimes been connected to mental illness, it’s often code for other kinds of socially unacceptable behaviour, in particular being prone to anger, to “flying off the handle.”
Cliches aside, it’s worth asking why we have excluded anger from the range of emotions available to creatives.
Yes, we are more aware of the dangers of bad behaviour. We worry about toxic people and we know life is too short to give arseholes a pass just because they’re some kind of creative genius.
But have we gone too far in repressing our anger, or in not letting it find expression in our work?
A Personal Lesson On Suppressing Anger
When I started seeing a therapist, after my panic attacks, one surprising insight was how I’d been suppressing anger. I’m no expert on anxiety. But for me it sometimes feels like having your emotional thermostat broken. I thought I was too angry; angry all the time.
My therapist suggested I wasn’t angry enough.
The evidence, the increasing dissatisfaction I had with my creative output, was clear. Something was missing. I’d gone for a couple of years feeling flat, lost, on the verge of being blocked. I was happy, kind of, but looking back I can see that my emotional life at that time had few hills and valleys, let alone the steep mountain climbs or dark forest odysseys we draw from in our best work.
There was a connection between the flatness of my emotional life and the flatness of my creative work.
Unlearning Childhood Memories
Growing up Latin American in the very Anglophile culture of Australia, I always struggled to be a calmer version of myself. Immigrant kids were always labelled as moody, similar to the way in which women are labelled as bossy, or bitchy, for exhibiting the same behaviour that’s thought normal for men. So immigrant kids were labelled as moody or hot-tempered for behaviour that seemed acceptable from other kids. Controlling your temper felt like having no temper, or no variation in your emotional range.
Spending my early 20s in churches didn’t help. There was only ever a slim range of human emotions that were acceptable in a context where you were always encouraged to be at war with your own psyche, to think of your most natural human urges as being somehow evil and to be disdained. Regulated bursts of happiness were OK, but sadness or anger were marks of sin, rather than normal human emotions that might inspire you to pen a poem or country music song.
For most of us, our sense of how to deal with anger, or how we repress it, stems from the roles we were asked to play in childhood and early adulthood. So often this involves living within a thin band of acceptable emotional responses that are less about what makes us happy, healthy, and ready to flourish, and more about making us easier to control, manage, and regulate.
Anger Is Natural
Can you think of three ways in which being happy or kind can make you a better person? It’s probably not hard. Now try to find three ways in being angry does the same thing. Was it harder?
For many of us it’s a struggle to come up with ways in which anger can be a useful emotion. But why do we have it in the first place? What does anger do? And why does it come naturally?
Things get even trickier when we look at evolutionary biology. It seems anger evolved at least in part as a negotiation tool, a way to win arguments. Try putting on an “angry face” and you’ll probably clench your jaw, push your forehead down, maybe cross your arms and bring up your shoulders, all of which are signals of aggression and dominance in the animal world.
So yeah, anger is a way to win arguments by threatening violence, great!
If we are going to suggest anger plays some role in our creative process, then we have to be clear this isn’t the kind of anger a person uses to threaten or intimidate or manipulate people, win arguments, or hold onto power or their place in society.
Anger And Anxiety
Why then did my therapist suggest I needed to express more anger?
There are connections between anger and anxiety. For me, this included childhood injustices which I still needed to address, present-day situations I felt unable to navigate, and people in my world who seemed accustomed to treating me in ways I could not bear. Learning to deal with issues like these meant allowing myself to feel them deeply, which in turn meant allowing the anger to surface.
And anger illuminated the way. Because in its positive sense, anger clarifies and helps us draw boundaries, while suppressing anger can have harmful effects on our body and mind.
If we remove anger from our emotional repertoire we also deny ourselves some of the best tools we have to deal with injustice, to improve our relationships, and to make our world a better place.
How Anger Fuels Creativity
Too often we reduce creativity to pretty things; pretty things with little real meaning to them. We kindergartenise creativity.
But making art as a response to injustice, creating things as a way to change the world, or making something as an expression of your identity and in turn as a way to show people who you are, should always be at the core of how we understand creativity.
One study pitted two teams against each other in a creative exercise. Each member of one team was asked to remember an experience that made them angry and write a short essay about it before the exercise. It turned out the angered team managed to create more ideas, and their ideas were more original. It seems being angry engaged the mind-wandering aspects of creativity we’ve looked at before. After a while, though, the effect wore off and the angry team was more emotionally depleted.
Anger seems to do two helpful things to our mind. First, it’s like a boost of energy, focusing attention. Second, it makes our thought process less structured, less logical, looser, and more able to see the wider scope of the problems we face.
We see this most clearly in the way angry feelings can help focus an artist’s thinking of the breadth and depth of social injustice. Anger can feed creativity in ways that allow artists to name the wrongs they see, give voice to people and ideas that are underrepresented, and imagine a world where positive change can happen.
“We chose to use music as a way to combat this injustice. We wanted to use our voices to deal with our anger.”
– Janelle Monáe
The important thing is: this anger is being used. It isn’t just unfocused rage. Yelling into social media is not the same thing as making a painting or writing a novel.
But sometimes throwing paint feels good!
One thing that helps me when I feel anger is to write. Not in my normal way, typing fast on a keyboard, but longhand, with a fountain pen. I can’t write fast this way. This resistance, the slowness of the pen against the speed of my energised, unfocused, angrily creative thoughts, is powerful, like a tight rope pulling out a car stuck in the mud. It’s a little ugly, a little messy, but very liberating.
Anger Still Has To Be Managed
In a way, anger is the flipside of passion. How many times does anger express itself as “I wish”? If we learn to listen to anger it can reveal a lot about what’s going in our hearts. Sometimes that will be selfishness; our sense of entitlement, or our need to have things go our way. But it can also be our insight into how things could be, if only there was more beauty, kindness, and love.
Unchecked anger is still a problem. If we are easily irritated, frequently take offence, or are quick to be ticked off by the smallest of inconveniences, then that can be a sign something isn’t right with us. Like the way unrelenting cynicism and contempt can indicate a deeper malaise. And the consequences of unchecked anger, or an angry way of life, can be brutal, even deadly.
However, if we fear being angry, or believe it has no place in a healthy soul, we will question our moral insights and assume they reflect a weakness within us, rather than a source of strength.
Because the anger that fuels our creativity is not the tool of intimidation used to force other people to change. The anger that fuels creativity is a tool of self-reflection, so we realise how we need to change, and the things we need to create, to make the world a better place.