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The Artist As Outsider

Being a misfit or outsider can be distressing or downright painful, especially as a teen, but many artists say it is part of their experience that helps them be more creative.

Anne Rice

Writer Anne Rice talks about being “a bad student, I daydreamed in class, wrote stories in my notebooks. I learned the basics, but most of my active intellectual life was outside of school. It was acutely painful because [my sister and I] felt different, like misfits. Our individuality was almost irrepressible, but I wanted to fit in.”

[Book Magazine interview Sept/Oct 2000.]

[Photo from her Facebook page.]

Mary-Elaine Jacobsen, PhD notes in her article Encountering the Gifted Self Again, For the First Time that “Contrary to stereotyped beliefs, large numbers of gifted adults are charismatic, popular, socially adept people who are known as extraordinary leaders and valued friends.”

But, she adds, “many also share a history of chronic feelings of loneliness… many gifted adults are not popular, have few friends, and struggle to gain a sense of belonging.”

[She is author of the book The Gifted Adult.]

And this struggle over belonging – or not – may apply to many artists, whether or not they are recognized as gifted.

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“Artists need to be outsiders in order to really view what’s going on. That little bit of detachment has been great for me… As artists, we have to be brave. If we aren’t brave, we aren’t artists.”

That is a comment by writer, producer, and director Paul Haggis. His films include In the Valley of Elah; Letters from Iwo Jima; Casino Royale; Million Dollar Baby; Crash. [Quote from]

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Jane Austen wrote in Mansfield Park (1814) about one of her characters feeling sad from not being more connected:

Mansfield Park movie“Everybody around her was gay and busy, prosperous and important; each had their object of interest, their part, their dress, their favourite scene, their friends and confederates: all were finding employment in consultations and comparisons, or diversion in the playful conceits they suggested.

“She alone was sad and insignificant; she had no share in anything; she might go or stay; she might be in the midst of their noise, or retreat from it to the solitude of the East Room, without being seen or missed.”

[Photo from the 1999 movie by Patricia Rozema.]

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Dominican-American author and MIT professor Junot Diaz commented in an interview about being an outsider as a child:

“I can’t imagine anybody who ends up being an artist who didn’t pass through a time of geekiness. I was, as a kid, really obsessed with reading. In the neighborhood I grew up in, that was about as geeky as you could possibly get. …

“I think that the intellectual life is amazingly lonely in a country like ours.”

He notes his main character Oscar in his story The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has interests that “guaranteed him an enormous amount of isolation, being interested in science-fiction, being interested in fantasy… But I think that probably what is more problematic was that he was a kid who couldn’t find it in him to pretend to be something he wasn’t. And that was something I always kind of admired about Oscar as protagonist.”

Diaz adds, “I knew that I couldn’t myself personally risk the censure and the ostracization to be so honest to myself… anyone who has ever been a kid knows how deep loneliness can go. Part of where I get the writing from is being honest about what childhood was like.” [From Bostonist Interview]

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Anne Meredith by china jorrinScreenwriter Anne Meredith (Bastard Out of Carolina; Cavedweller; The Red Tent, and other movies) made some interesting comments in our interview about the value of being an outlander:

“My sense of being an outsider got worse and worse through my adolescence. Or better and better.

“It helps me work in Hollywood, because I’m not intimidated by anybody, and it helps because I have a kind of innocent way of looking at things.”

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Some related posts:

Misfits and Innovators – “It’s better to be a pirate than to join the navy.” Steve Jobs / According to some writers and research, some of the “big names” of creativity and innovation share personal qualities with various sorts of “misfits.”

Being an outsider can be a building block of excellence

Conforming sucks

Nurturing creativity in solitude

Einstein and other non-conformists

Gifted, Sensitive, In Need Of Meaning: Existential Depression – Psychologists including James T. Webb and Eric Maisel note highly sensitive, creative and gifted, high ability people can be particularly vulnerable to existential depression.


The Artist As Outsider

Douglas Eby

Douglas EbyDouglas Eby, MA/Psychology, is a writer and researcher on psychology and personal development related to creativity; creator of the , and author of books including [link to book site with excerpts.]
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Some excerpts from The Creative Mind are included in his newsletter .
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APA Reference
Eby, D. (2015). The Artist As Outsider. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 22, 2019, from


Last updated: 27 Mar 2015
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