you: beautiful rebel. you: spitting truth to power.




There is your “social self” and “essential self”. Your essential self is your true self. It alone knows what you need to thrive. It tries to send that knowledge up through your social self like seedlings struggling up through the dirt to break surface, seek sunlight. You get glimmerings. You get flashes of insight. You get pained in body and mind when your life steers in the wrong direction. Generally it’s your essential self that has the driving desire to be a writer, or artist of any kind. (Unless you’re just in it for the money. And all that wild sex.)

Your social self is the mask you piece together over the years to present to the world at large. You do it in order to get along and be accepted and loved and conventionally successful. The problem is we don’t always know where the mask ends and the essential self begins. The image, the social self, gets welded to our psychic skin. (A small percentage of people lose their essential selves entirely and believe that they are their image, to the extent that they feed their image instead of their souls: these people are known as narcissists, and tend to be a wee bit difficult in relationships, and tortured and lonely at core. But I digress.)

There’s a huge call in social media to be authentic. On the Web, you can be anyone. You can hide behind any kind of identity. So you need to show who you are if you are to earn trust (and if people don’t trust you, they won’t follow you or do business with or fan you…why would they?).

But creative work demands the greatest authenticity of all. Your creative voice is your true voice, and I think that’s why so many of us find it so threatening. You have to crack apart your social mask in order to let that clarion call come through.

That call will make demands on you. It doesn’t care about what’s convenient or acceptable, or what it might cost you. The truth will set you free, but first it might shatter your life as you know it.

So it’s one thing to write lovely prose, or show off good technique; it’s another thing entirely to go there, to get real, to infuse your work with the originality of your spirit.

I think that’s why there’s a strong relationship – in real life as well as in the stereotypes – between suffering and art. It’s not so much that suffering in and of itself makes for better art. Suffering shatters your social mask. If you don’t fight the process – if you flow with it, form a relationship with it – suffering lets the world come into you and breaks you open to the sense of a shared (and very human) experience.

It also makes it easier for your essential self to tell your social self to fuck off (pardon my French). Pain puts you outside the normal structure of things. Which also means it’s easier to rebel, and I think all creative work involves a deep and secret rebellion. It’s you, expressing who you truly are. It’s you, spitting truth to power.

And when you do this, you give other people permission to do the same (or rather: you inspire them to give themselves permission to do the same). We connect to each other through our vulnerability. Which is why vulnerability can be an expression of great strength – and not just the weakness we’ve been trained to believe it (which is what necessitates those social masks in the first place). To go onstage and show your soul? The ‘good’ girl has to admit her inner badness. The ‘strong’ man has to admit his softness. We confess the paradoxes and contradictions that we are, and the wounded beauty of our fucked-up shadowy places.

Which is why the world needs your story, your true story, however you choose to tell it (because art is a lie that exposes the truth). Your social self will tell you what you “should” write – and what you shouldn’t. Treat your social self with gentleness and compassion – and then get it the hell out of your way.

We’re waiting.

Aug 29, 2010

14 comments · Add Yours

First of all, thank you for your AMAZING comment on my blog. It means so much to me, I can’t put it into words. And what I will be less articulate about is this essay which I feel really emotional about. “Which is why vulnerability can be an expression of great strength.” Yes. So why have I thought hiding everything was of great strength???? Just told at a network pitch, “It wasn’t emotional enough.” All I am is emotion. Emotion with a twist lid, protectively keeping it all in. This is my push… this essay. Thank you so much.

This might be all over the place but I’m feeling excited and a bit of a gut punch in your essay’s beautiful honesty.


Just reread your comment and I am deeply sorry about your loss. It just makes your words so much more powerful. Thank you for sharing that. Brave woman.


Thanks for justifying why I decided not to worrying about “finding my voice” so elegantly. My warts are my stories.


Funny, I just recently wrote a post about authenticity in your writing, and then I happen across yours from the Daily Brainstorm… I adore this post, well done! Art is a lie that exposes the truth… that’s the first I’ve ever heard that expression, and it’s a sure bet it’s one I’ll now always remember. Thanks for re-affirming what I already know! :D



just stuff, justine. thanks


i meant “good”. dammit


Kay — “my warts are my stories”. I love that. It reminds me of a moment from America’s Next Top Model — and I can’t believe I’m referencing this show to make my point, but bear with me — when one of the judges is criticizing a finalist’s walk on the runway, and the other judge makes the point that her walk is imperfect in a way that makes her distinctive, unique, while the other finalist was merely “trying to walk like a model”. (The funny-walking finalist ended up winning.) But it’s something I’ve really started thinking about — not just how to capitalize on your strengths, but also how to reframe your weaknesses through your strengths & make them work for you. We’re always stronger in the end for the broken places; they reknit us.

Cori — I’m going to check out your authenticity post — I don’t think anybody can ever write enough on the subject — it’s easy to say but hard to pull off, to pull away all those layers of guardedness and imitation…I wish I could take credit for that “art is a lie” idea but it’s been expressed by others & more eloquently! But I totally believe it. Art tells the truth through lies.

Eros & Adam — thanks. This post means a lot to me, so your affirmation means a great deal. :)


And 100daysinbed — Your blog impressed me. I *loved* that blog post I commented on and it helped inspire this post, so thanks. Re: the network pitch — god, I have the feeling that half the time those guys say something just to say something, if you know what I mean. Keep trucking.


Hi Justine,
I read often about suffering artists, or the nonexistent suffering artist, or how artists that don’t suffer aren’t real artists, etc. etc. etc.

This is the first article I’ve read that makes some sense of the artists’ relationship to suffering. Virginia Woolf made a great case for writing about being ill, too. (You’re in good company!)
I love how you phrased this, “Pain puts you outside the normal structure of things.”

Bravo, Justine. (Or, maybe I should say, “Brava.”) ;)


This is an awesome post, Justine! It was a perfect piece of motivation and encouragement for me today…or any day, really! Having a “social self” that is separate from your “essential self” is SO exhausting. I found university and then the corporate world was expecting social me, and over time I was connecting less and less with essential me. I’ve been making some big changes in my life this year that are pushing me to embrace essential me – including my vulnerabilities, SO scary! – and it’s great to see people like you talking about the whole battle. Essential me feels like the underdog sometimes, but who doesn’t like rooting for the underdog? :) Thanks for having such a meaningful discussion!


I’ve blogged in the past about masks, vulnerability and proposed the question as to whether or not creative people are really just tortured souls. So needless to say, when I came across your post here, I LOVED it! Suffering really does shatter your social mask which is why pain produces some of the most beautiful writing. Although artists will forever be labeled as “tortured souls” when really they just know how to tell their social self to fuck off more than the rest of us.

I’m all for breaking down walls with a pen and raising a glass to being authentic. To be open and honest in your writing, even if it means exposing ugly truths about yourself you would normally hide behind a mask. If you’re brave enough to write from a place of total vulnerability, you’ll discover that it’s incredibly freeing! It’s real and raw and relatable. There’s no better writing than that!

Oh…and speaking of writing, you’re one hell of a good writer! Happy to have stumbled across your blog.


Amazing post – thank you! Among other things, it explains why children can often express their creativity, their essential selves, so much better than adults, because they haven’t spent years honing their ‘social self’ …


love your post. I’m reconnecting more and more with my essential self and it’s inspiring to hear from others on this journey into FULL and authentic SELF-LOVE. From this place we have so much to share with the world.


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