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My wife and I went to see “I Can Only Imagine” over Spring Break. I enjoyed it very much, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the discovery of J. Michael Finley, who played Bart Millard, the lead singer of the Contemporary Christian Band “Mercy Me.” Finley is a good actor, but he is a remarkable singer — makes sense, since most of his credits prior to this movie are in musical theater.
At any rate, one of the interesting little nuggets that I walked away from this movie thinking about is the idea of where does art come from. In the movie, Millard and the band struggle to find their “sound,” that unique message that sets them apart from the crowd. What Millard eventually had to do was confront all the pain in his past, and use it to motivate his writing. The end result was the triple-platinum crossover smash hit “I Can Only Imagine.”
The question that stuck with me after that was, as you might imagine (no pun intended), does art only grow out of pain? Did Vincent van Gogh have to cut off his ear? Because that wasn’t, to the best of our knowledge, necessary for Michelangelo. Was the brilliance of Beethoven only an extension of his tortured soul, made the worse as he started to lose his hearing? Because that wasn’t, apparently, the story of Bach.
Or the Bee Gees.
Do dancers need pain to express music through movement? Because, I gotta say, they sort of do it to themselves when they put on pointe shoes. And what of actors and comedians? We all know the pain that fueled Robin Williams, but nobody has ever said that Denzel Washington or Merryl Streep are drinking from any great wells of suffering. Then there was that one time that Ben Affleck made about seven movies in one year … thus inflicting pain on all of us.
It is an interesting puzzle to ponder. Surely, deep pain, if tapped in to in a constructive fashion, and coupled with a degree of craftsmanship, gives a person the opportunity to access facets of the human experience that are unique and, possibly, extraordinary.
But deep pain also gives rise to a variety of terrible, unhealthy behaviors. So then, does art necessarily straddle the line between expression and madness?
I toy with thoughts like this because I aspire to sell novels, and, frankly, most of the pain in my life is of the hit-the-thumb-with-the-hammer sort. And, while that is endlessly amusing to my wife and children, I find it translates poorly to the printed word.
Writing columns is a relatively smaller thing — 650 or so words on whatever is going on in the world. See something ridiculous? Hear a story about bad government? Millennials do something worth mocking? Whip out a column. Every once in a while, perhaps, I turn a decent phrase, but it’s hard to capture deep artistry in that format. And the people that do — George Will, Peggy Noonan, Mitch Albom — are notoriously not madmen and lunatics.
This, of course, would be about the perfect time to insert jokes about spending 27 years teaching music in the schools. Sadly, that sort of pain has a bit of a limiting effect on ones’ ability to express through music, deafness being a bit of a challenge, so … But, then again, not for Beethoven.
So, what I’m left with is nothing but questions and contradictions — welcome to my life. If it takes Bart Millard being willing to write his own pain into music for his band to explode on the scene, then what does it take for an author to break through? Or is there another route?
But, in the meantime, I guess we’re left with this, my weekly column … in which I simply inflict pain on all three of you still reading.
Michael Alcorn is a teacher and writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His novels are available at MichaelJAlcorn.com. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.
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