The Suffering Myth


Dear Artist,

“There is no agony,” said Maya Angelou, “like bearing an untold story inside of you.” Coaxing the physical shape of this story into art can be painful. As a solo act, it’s all on you. Arriving at this minor miracle, day after day, invites a special kind of struggle, though we understand, as artists, that ours is a privileged suffering. Bestowed upon us by ocean-deep urges and childhood sparks, the process could at times be described as what Wassily Kandinsky called “a painful duty.” Perhaps we’re also simply propelled by the fantasy of an independent life, and it makes sense that this ought to be a bit costly. “If the path before you is clear,” wrote Joseph Campbell, “you’re probably on someone else’s.”


“Several Circles” 1926
oil on canvas, (140 x 140 cm)
by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

Many years ago, a friend came to plot some arty ideas at my Greenwich Village walk-up. He was a talented writer clocking regular hours at a Fortune 500 and settled in an outer borough with a lovely wife. When he reached the sixth floor and took the last few steps into the apartment, he slouched onto my bed and took a survey of the room. “I didn’t make enough sacrifices for my art,” he sighed. I checked his view from the bed: light shaft, fire escape, duct-taped linoleum, ceiling hole, easel, piano. For a moment I saw not my tiny, perfect, creative aerie but a badge of the suffering myth. Or, perhaps, he wasn’t looking at my room at all. Perhaps it was me.



“Composition, Landscape” 1915
watercolor, Indian ink on paper (22.5 x 33.8 cm) by Wassily Kandinsky

The studio and furnishings, like unhelpful habits and a bad temper, are among a realm of possible accessories to any kind of life. Art does not take credit for these markers of pain. Work — your own — is the source of what Monet called the “torture.” He wondered if it wouldn’t be easier as a hobby. “If I could find something else I would be much happier, because I could use this other interest as a form of relaxation,” he wrote. “Now I cannot relax.” Does the darkness of the cycle of creation know the difference between devotion and dabbling? Do the stakes determine the intensity of discomfort? Is struggle’s endurance what sets one on the path to heroism? “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” (Helen Keller)


“Autumn Landscape with Boats” 1908
oil on board, 28 × 38 inches (71.0 × 96.5 cm)
by Wassily Kandinsky



PS: “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” (Joseph Campbell)

Esoterica: American writer and lecturer Joseph Campbell taught comparative religion and mythology in upstate New York between 1934 and 1972. For most of this time he lived with his wife and former student, Jean Erdman, a dancer and choreographer, in a two-room apartment in Greenwich Village. Babies were not in the mix. Before this and after being denied approval to study for a doctorate in Sanskrit and Modern Art, Campbell spent five years in a rented shack in Woodstock, New York, where he divided his days into four four-hour blocks, all devoted to reading except one. In 1949, Campbell wrote The Hero With a Thousand Faces, an explanation of the archetypal hero’s journey found in all world mythologies: a hero embarks on an adventure and encounters obstacles along the way that reveal human truths that he can then share with others. “Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco,” he wrote. “There’s always the possibility of a fiasco. But there’s also the possibility of bliss.”


Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“It has done me good to be somewhat parched by the heat and drenched by the rain of life.” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)



  1. Embarrassment can stifle even the best of us. As children, when all is given to us, and no sorrow is allowed to enter our tiny growing world, we can fling ourselves in any direction unimpeded. I wonder if that is good a good thing. I believed that with no training I was already a great artist. At a very vulnerable point early in my career, I was told by a Museum Director my work was not museum quality. Embarrassed by my youthful self-confidence, that admonishment pushed me to work much harder and I did not allow those words to define my future. I began to study and learn the techniques of the masters in watercolor and oil. Years later, top awards were received in both mediums. I applied for museum shows, and they were eventually given. Embarrassment helped me grow. Thank you Sara, you bring me to memories of those times of growth, hard work and a future of dreams continually being manifest.

  2. Recently, at a time of crisis in my own work, I was listening back to one of Joe Campbell’s Mythos lectures. “There is the right hand path that keeps you fixed in the proper path of your world. You live a dignified and, in a rich society, a richly developed life. On the other hand, you may flip out. [Students laugh] You have a feeling of incongruity: ‘This doesn’t go with me.’ And you move out. Out into a world of danger. This is known as the left hand path: you follow the way of your own bliss. And you are in a realm in which there are no rules, and since your bliss is not mine, you don’t know where you are going. Here you live a life of danger, creativity, perhaps not a respected life, but certainly an interesting one.” This is “hero’s journey, the night sea journey, the hero’s quest, in which the individual is going to bring forth in his life something that was never beheld before, namely the fulfillment in time and space of his own potentialities.”

    As you quote from Hero with a Thousand Faces, “There’s always the possibility of a fiasco. But there’s also the possibility of bliss.” Even in times of fiasco, we should remember the bliss – and see the evidence of it in our work. No pain, no gain. Or as Leonard Cohen put it:

    And even though it all went wrong
    I’ll stand before the lord of song
    With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah

    • Thank you, I’ve always been inspired by Joseph Campbell, and this quote summarizes life so beautifully. Good to remember when jumping across the next ‘chasm’ seems inconceivable . Hallelujah, and Amen to that!

  3. ” Trouble?…..Life is trouble”….Zorba…from Zorba the Greek….

    “Suffering is Grace”….Ram Dass

    “Don’t you see it’s all perfect”……Yoga Master Teaching

      • What a beautiful quote! I’ve been compiling a list of quotes for years now and include the author’s name. However, I have quite a few attributed to “Author Unknown”. If you want to share the name of your friend so I can properly attribute the quote, I would really appreciate this. However, I also totally understand if anonymity is preferred in this instance, then I’ll simply put: Author Unknown. Thank you Helen!

  4. Thanks for the lovely quotes from Joseph Campbell which are new to me. I was afraid you were going to use the term “myth”, Sara in its popularized meaning which is fable or untruth but thankfully you didn’t. Campbell described a myth as something which never happened and is always happening. Myths tell us universal truths about ourselves by means of allegory. I guess that also applies to good art.

  5. Stumbling along the path is a part of the journey. If I spend all my time watching my feet so that I don’t trip I miss the view. But to lift my eyes and look to the scene ahead, I must have a certain faith that I am guided along that path. It’s a journey of steps no matter how you walk the path.

  6. kathryn taylor on

    Such encouraging, wise words for writers and artists, especially. Lets us know we’re not alone in our struggles. And there is value in the struggling. Thank you, Sara!

    • After fifty years of living a life never very far from the visual arts as a painter, sculptor and instructor, I have been asked many times “Why?” The quote that includes the thoughts of Maya Angelou, Kandinsky and Joseph Campbell sums up the reasons and motivation well. At age seventy, I’m teaching a studio class and art history survey at CSU and will use the quote at the end of both sessions in a few days. I added photographs of them and the slide brought forth a tear.

      Thanks, J.D. Osmann

  7. Sara and David, I just wanted to thank you both for your contibutions to Volume I & 2 of your dad’s letters. Your father’s words come alive in David’s voice. I often listen to them as I work in my studio. I enjoy the multiple, layered meanings of your father’s writing. He was a funny, thinking, and thoughtful guy. I know you miss him greatly. Thanks for sharing him with us. Best wishes.

  8. The whole world is a very narrow bridge;
    the important thing is not to be afraid.

    -Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810)

  9. Love all of the quotes, helpful and insightful thoughts and sharing from everyone. Always such a great feeling here and a knowing that in the “struggles” we are not alone, even though many times it feels that way. Always thanks to you Sarah for getting the conversations going.

  10. yikes….after years of choices of my own that took me in painful directions…i now have to suffer for following my true course!?….good to know…hard to hear. ;)

  11. I recently put together a retrospective at age 83. I had not expected the process to be so painful. I had most of the work done, only a few pieces to make new. But the sorting and gathering up of my whole life for a look by myself and also others was scary, painful, made my heart race and my stomach hurt. It turned out to touch many people, many women especially. But some men also saw it as relevant to their lives. I did not worry that some people might not like it. It was not there to like. But some people said they loved it. It rendered others speechless. I wrote more for it than I painted for it. I felt a need to enlighten, to speak about each piece as I went along: where it came from, why it was done. I have always been a writer as well as a painter. I had read that it was sort of taboo to write about your paintings. ‘Let the painting speak for itself,’ they say. I do not agree.

    Joseph Campbell has been one of my heroes. His Hero With A Thousand Faces was the first big step on a new journey for me.


    • Teri Kay Willett on

      Sara…your writing is always just the perfect as you tie in theme, quotes, and artists. This was a great piece!

      • Suzanne Davis Ross on

        Sara, artist friends and family have celebrated with me my 80th February birthday milestone and two reoccurring comments have surfaced -my four kids used “Mom has resilience and is always in nurturing mode”. People, words & art nurture me. Thanks again. My husband also “got me ” and in times of stress said” you need to be with your people.” Sara & David , you’re my people. Regards, Suzanne

  12. re: Joseph Campbell from Wikipedia- “He was from an upper-middle-class Irish Catholic family. With the arrival of the Great Depression, Campbell spent the next five years (1929–34) living in a rented shack on some land in Woodstock, New York. There, he contemplated the next course of his life…”
    Privileged Suffering is what I’d call it. While everyone else in this country was really suffering from the Great Depression- Campbell got to sit at home and read. Whatever.
    The word privilege- and its meaning/intent- has become one of my least favorite words- as everywhere around me are privileged (female) artists while I wonder where my next meal is coming from as I prepare for a $200+ rent increase in another month. Sorry. Mr Campbell had a really rough privileged life. Darn.

  13. Hi,I’ve decorated a book, using a gorgeous PB stamp, and that will be my entry for this weeks challenge. Have a little trouble with the linking today, but hopefully you cand find it .Have a nice da!eHanny:)

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