the artist’s secret

“In art, either as creators or participators, we are helped to remember some of the glorious things we have forgotten, and some of the terrible things we are asked to endure, we who are children of God by adoption and grace.”

Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

When my friend Melissa lost her mom to cancer, she says she didn’t cry much if at all. She couldn’t find the emotion to go along with the heartbreak of losing her mom. She couldn’t reach it, grab hold of it, and move it up to the surface. It was too deep. And so it came as a great surprise to her when she discovered herself in a heap of blubbering, slobbery emotion during You’ve Got Mail. You mean to tell me she could easily find tears to mourn the last days of the Shop Around the Corner but she could not manage to locate them for her mother?

image source

Yes. That is it exactly. And Madeleine L’Engle puts into words that very simple truth of being human — art makes it possible for us to remember, both the beauty and the banal, the lovely and the loss. Art numbs the wound just enough for us to be able to access the source of it, to reach down into the depths and pull it up to examine.

The beauty of art is that it separates us enough from our own pain in order to make it safe to approach. This movie, this novel, this musical, this song isn’t my story, and so I can freely let myself identify with it. And in the freedom, the tears have permission to fall. And in the tear-fall, I realize that this movie, this novel, this musical, this song holds pieces of my story after all.

Art is a gift, and the artist’s secret is that she carries in her hands the tools of a healer. You might think just the opposite, think you have nothing to share until you are whole and well and put together. We may admire your wholeness, but we can touch your brokenness. Are you still trying to talk yourself out of your art? Please don’t. We, a broken and hurting people, so desperately need it.


  1. says

    thanks for that truth!till i was 27 i could only cry cause of art in many ways… didnt let my self to show wickness
    but than came a day my heart opened since than i learned to cry and now it comes out naturaly.

  2. says

    Well said. Madeleine L’Engle is one of my absolute favourite authors, but I don’t think I’ve read that particular book you’ve quoted here. I’ve also never thought of art quite the way you’ve described it, but I think you’ve nailed the artist’s secret perfectly. Thank you for the encouragement to share my art, even when I don’t feel I’ve “arrived enough” to say anything.

  3. says

    i’m grateful to have friends like you to have walked beside…whether in a heap of blubbery tears, or just numb faced and tired. you remember more about me than i probably will ever be able to articulate. thanks for your words.

    • says

      All of us live stories – we just need someone to write them down. Your life is full of them, friend. Thanks for letting me share a few lines.

  4. says

    “The beauty of art is that it separates us enough from our own pain in order to make it safe to approach. ”

    This has me thinking much right now.
    I’ve lost myself in “Pride and Prejudice” this week.
    After reading another great book that completely broke me wide open.

    And, I’ve been captivated by the Story and it has moved me in an odd way! So now, I’m wondering why. Am I just a hopeless romantic? Or is it something deeper.

    Is it all related?

    :) Probably….

    think. think. think.

  5. says

    Hmmm…I hadn’t thought of art in that way. But it is so true. Pictures and songs and movies can stir up the craziest emotions in me-and they often seem to point back to something I should have felt earlier. Thankful for the new perspective!

  6. says

    “Are you still trying to talk yourself out of your art? Please don’t. We, a broken and hurting people, so desperately need it.”

    yes That is exactly what I’ve been doing. Thanks for the encouragement to push through no matter what the mess is that is swirling around me to make my life complicated. I need to get back on the ball and put some paint on that watercolor paper that is still sitting blank behind the door. Stretched to it’s limits and yet ignored by me, stashed out of sight.

  7. says


    “The beauty of art is that it separates us enough from our own pain in order to make it safe to approach.”

    You have – once again – put into words what I have been unable to explain for years. Emily, you seriously have a gift with how you look at the world and explain it to others. So grateful for your gift of words.

  8. says

    I have that book marked on my “wish list too”. Thank you for speaking to right where I am at, seems like where alot of women are. Keep up the good “God work”. Its all grace….. grace and mercy.

  9. says

    Hey, Emily! This post was so timely. We just spent a wonderful weekend at a retreat focusing on this. Thank you sweet friend for your words here today. Hoping you have a beautiful day!
    aka Runnermom

  10. says

    I recognized that picture immediately–You’ve Got Mail really spoke to me too, for some reason. I especially love the line at the end when she finds out it was him and she says, “I wanted it to be you. I wanted it to be you so badly.” *sigh*

    Anyway, I totally resonate with this post. Books have spoken to me so many times it’s no wonder I was a literature major in college. I love that I can connect with someone even through the years. It’s amazing.

  11. says

    You got me with this one. This has been true for me in my own grieving. I feel inspired to dust of the post I just can seem to finish an hit “publish” anyway.

  12. says

    Emily, the last paragraph of this post is one of the most profound statements I have ever heard…and encapsulates my own story.
    Thank you for being such a gift to me through your art. I’m workin’ on mine :) I have a few more posts up!

  13. Michelle says

    Just what I needed this week – thank you.

    I’ve been dragging my feet on launching my blog for this very reason.

    A scene from the movie Shine once sneaked up on me and unleashed a torrent of tears and emotion that lasted about three hours, starting at the movie theatre and winding down in a (thankfully) darkened, mostly empty coffee shop. Heartbreak, empathy, and compassion overflowed where I had anger. That grief was one of the greatest gifts of my life.

    Wild, what the deft touch of art will unleash.

  14. says

    This is so….right Emily. I could never have found just those words, but they resonate in my heart. I sometimes feel a bit less than human when the tears just won’t come at the appropriate times – everyone else crying and me feeling all stopped up.
    If we wait for it all to come right – we won’t have anything real to share. Thank you for this Emily. Thank you.

  15. says

    I have this dream tucked away and I was waiting until I had it together. I didn’t think I could be any good to anyone if I was still broken. Then, two things happened. First, a friend wrote a very raw and real post on her blog, and she said that she couldn’t relate to anyone who had it all together. That was kick in the pants #1. Kick in the pants #2 came not too long ago, in the midst of a bad depressive episode – God nudged me to start that blog I’d put on the back burner until I “had it all together.” I reached out to some trusted friends and they all said what you said – absolutely, do it, you can reach people in your brokenness. I have no idea where any of this will go. Maybe it will be small and quiet, maybe it will get bigger. I’m just trying to keep my eyes on my Author and share my own brokenness in the hopes that it will touch someone else.

  16. says

    “We may admire your wholeness, but we can touch your brokenness.”

    I really can’t say much after reading this. What truth you spoke to my soul today. Thank you for your words…for sharing your art, your gift. Breathtaking.

  17. says

    This post touched a real chord with me today, as I only recently heard a song that made me think, feel, cry and maybe better understand a sense of loss and abandonment I’ve been feeling in my life. Not only tears, but maybe a lessening of a burden as well. Art is wonderful and powerful. Thanks for sharing, your words are always inspiring. Oh, and I cry at movies all the time. :)

  18. says

    i so so love this, emily.
    and last night, i picked up my camera and in focusing {and not}, in crawling through grass and hiking through field, in shooting directly at the sun {so it might shine on my face?}, i lost the hurt for a little. enough to make art. to let art heal me. just a little.

  19. says

    You articulated something really, really important here. Something that we don’t realize is going on during music videos, movies, novels etc., just like you said. Will be thinking and writing on this for a few days!!

  20. says

    I am glad to know that I am not the only one who watches a movie to have a good cry. As a matter of fact, it is the only way I can have a good cry. The experience is cathartic for me in so many ways and I am glad to know I am not alone.

    I love to read blogs because they give me perspective that I wouldn’t otherwise have. I love to blog because through the “art” I gain perspective.

    I have been following your posts on art for quite some time, but this one has hit home for me the most. Thank you!

  21. says

    I so get this. The day after my dad died, I made a huge, palette-knife painting of Gladiolus. It’s how I worked through my grief, although at the time, I wasn’t concious of the fact that that was why I was doing. Thank you for this.

  22. says

    you are a wise old soul , my friend.

    I’ve been finding less and less computer time of late, and starting to feel that what I say or share or post doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Wondering how much of it is just so back and forth …
    and then an irl friend who heard I blogged and read, with no objective , told me yesterday how much she cried and cried and felt better and thanked me and thanked me. She is going through the breaking of her marriage, and she said I helped her. I mattered for her in what I created. I do believe and know and get it, but oh how easy it is to forget, to defer, to hide, to be busy doing what we assume is more productive or valuable.

    ( sorry for the ramble .. xoxo )

  23. says

    Emily- thank you so much for sharing this today. I found out about a month ago that my mom has non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, two weeks prior to that I found out my husband and I are expecting our third child and just yesterday, on my birthday, I found my mom was moved from stage one to stage four lymphoma. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind of events with a lot of emotional moments. But I’ve finally built the courage up to write about it, and it is bringing great healing to me. Again- you’ve hit the mark with me, and I’m so glad I’ve found this this blog.

  24. says

    Gracious, Emily! ‘…the artist…she carries in her hands the tools of a healer.’ ‘We may admire your wholeness, but we can touch your brokenness.’ These lines? They skewered me…

  25. says

    this post was so moving…thanks for sharing your thoughts and words. It has came back and back to me over these last couple days. I just had to come back and let you know.

  26. says

    Books do that for me. I balled hysterically getting a pedicure while reading middle grade book, Tortilla Sun — and found it so cathartic and released what I’d been holding and couldn’t access. Just reading this post makes me want to cry as we all connect to the truth of what you’ve written. Thank you.

  27. says

    Jeepers, Emily, I almost missed this post. I am so very, very grateful I scrolled down and found it.

    It is so very easy for me to think that my story won’t really make much difference–that everything important has already been said, anyway, and after all is anyone really listening? Could my story really matter to anyone?

    Thank you for calling me to go ahead and make my art, whatever that may be. I need lots of reminders about lots of things, and your voice carries well.

    Love you!

  28. says

    Hey Emily, I followed this post from Edie’s Life in Grace blog and I am so glad I did. Incredible words of truth here and just what heart needs to hear. Thank you! xxx

  29. says

    Hi Emily! I would like to link to this post.. you’ve inspired me. If this isn’t ok, then please email me and let me know otherwise I’ll assume you don’t mind.

    Thank you for tackling the challenge of chasing artists out of our safe zones!

  30. says

    Your post was so inspiring. The line about admiring your wholeness, but we can touch your brokenness, is the perfect thought behind the idea of art, of story… wow! I quoted you on facebook and twitter, I hope that’s ok? I just had to share; I gave you credit! Thank you for this beautifully written post. I am adding your blog to my bookmarks asap!

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