Write What You Know? The Art is Always in the Heart

As you know, to be an artist is to transform life–all life–into art.

This concept has been on my mind a lot lately, especially while designing this year’s writing retreats: How are people feeling? What do we all need, collectively, to facilitate our best art? And during that inquiry I discovered something I’d never noticed before: Nesting inside the word Heart is the word Art.


Yes! The art is always inside the heart…if it’s any good. When we lean into our strong emotions of love, joy, anger, hope, despair, passion and rage, we tap into that which is universal. It’s counterintuitive, but the more intimate we become with our own emotional experience of the world, the more it resonates “out there”. We cannot write for them–it doesn’t work.

Recently I was able to see the Interactive Van Gogh exhibit that’s been touring the U.S. I’ve been a big fan for a long time, but seeing Van Gogh’s work again in a new format, I was reminded of an artistic paradox: how often beauty blooms in the midst of pain. These works of art that continue to move us 150 years later were painted by a man in anguish—lonely, full of doubts, and suffering from mental illness (and possibly wormwood poisoning).

After the last two years, most of us are also dealing with a lot of emotion: pain, yes, but also grief, shock, wonder, panic, joy, despair. As artists, we know we get to feel all that juicy stuff. But sometimes we find the words are caught in our throats, hands stuck halfway to the page. 

Our best art always emerges when we lean into, not away from, that fire.

I’m not talking about purely therapeutic writing—which is also important. I’m talking about the art that happens beyond trauma—beyond shock, grief, pain, wonder, panic and joy. I’m talking about using the fire from our emotions—all our emotions—to create artifacts that vibrate for centuries.

Write what you know” is a platitude largely overused and misunderstood. But this is what it means to me: Begin in truth. Start with your own heart. Let the art bloom from within our own emotional experience of the world, our nuanced experiences of love and sadness, rage and passion, hope and despair. You can invent plot, character, setting, entire worlds. But you must write from your heart to create art that matters. 

Using our strong emotions to fuel our art can be extremely inspiring. Van Gogh created his last 70 paintings during the last 70 days of his too-short life. Frida Kahlo transformed physical pain into artifacts of incredible beauty. Beethoven wrote his masterpiece, Ode to Joy, when he was deaf.

We are lucky to be artists who know what to do with strong feelings: We feel them. All of them. We allow them to permeate our stories, paintings, songs, and performances. Real, necessary art begins in that soft and squishy place. When we open our heart we allow the world to move through us like a prism, landing on the page and painting rainbows on all the walls.  

Wishing you beauty, always.

Art With Heart