Counting the Cost

Two boats caught in a storm

Yesterday, I opened the first day of this semester’s Creative Writing class by printing on the white board in large black letters, “No Creativity Without Risk.” It seemed, at the time, both an important tone-setter for the kind of work we’re undertaking this semester, but also, a maxim I believe in. “First we jump off the cliff,” the saying goes, “then we build the wings on the way down.” I was trying to emphasize to these young writers the importance of going to the difficult places in our work, no matter the cost. But the news of the past 48 hours has made me think more deeply about the implications of such an approach.

Creative work is often the only thing standing between sanity and madness. It’s a boat in which we huddle against the gales of life. But what if the thing that we use to heal ourselves becomes our killer? What if the very craft that we depend upon to navigate us through life’s choppy waters is the thing that takes us down to the watery depths?

What if the risk costs us our very lives?

Those were questions churning through my head after reading this moving obituary of the late, ferociously talented actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who passed away Sunday at the age of 46. Hoffman’s career was marked by, among other abilities, a drive to get lost inside his characters, no matter the cost, to give himself to his roles.

This is the quote that hit me hardest:

The theater was very difficult for him,” Robert Falls, the director of “Long Day’s Journey,” said in an interview Sunday. “It cost him; there was an emotional cost to the work, having to do it for eight performances a week, and having to rehearse. In ‘Long Day’s Journey,’ a role about an addict who would be dead in a number of years, who was filled with self-loathing, certainly Phil had access to those emotions. But I’m not talking about a method actor. He just brought every fiber of his being to the stage. He was there — with his depth of feeling, depth of humanity — and no other actor I’ve ever worked with ever brought it like that, not at that level.

In short, he risked it all.

I’m not going to pretend to get inside Hoffman’s head. To do so would be reckless and disrespectful. But the image that lingers with me as I reflect on this tragic loss of a gifted artist is the cost of risking it all to create something.

No matter what the product, no matter how lovely or moving or remarkable the creation, it always – ALWAYS – has exacted a heavy toll on the creator.

Often that cost is far more than any of us will ever be aware of. We would be wise to remember this.

2 thoughts on “Counting the Cost

  1. “What if the very craft that we depend upon to navigate us through life’s choppy waters is the thing that takes us down to the watery depths?” This is a great observation, and something I was discussing just this weekend with Hetty. Why is it that creative personalities are so sensitive to their surroundings? How is it that we perceive the world differently from, say, mathematicians? It seems to me that the same unique vision that allows us to create something beautiful also opens up whole realms of pain, darkness, despair… To pursue one brings us closer to the other. And you’re right, it exacts a heavy toll. It’s overwhelmingly worth it, I think, but excruciating nonetheless. Great post, Glenn.

  2. we have to jump off the cliff, whether we fly or freefall. art is heroic, self-sacrificial, daring, lethal, vital. as a writer, I feel the full terror of what happened to PSH. I feel it all the time. but the terror never overcomes the heroism, and the urge, and the necessity. as the incomparable John Berryman said, “we must travel in the direction of our fear” until all the beauty is wrung out of us.

    good luck with the new guys — hope they turn in more than just rough drafts. let them swim deep, but don’t let them drown.

    p.s. college English is FABULOUS

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