Poets Watching TV: Don't Let AHS Fool You—Talent and Creativity Don't Have a Relationship

Don't take the black pill! Ryan Murphy & Brad Falchuk's long-running horror anthology series wants you to believe in the Haves and the Have-Nots when it comes to art, and they couldn't be more wrong.

Welcome to the fourth and final creepy Halloween post featured at PopPoetry this month! If you missed the others, check the archive to read about Twilight & Robert Frost as well as the haiku-esque poem at the heart of It (2017) and It: Chapter Two (2019).

If you want to be a great writer, you have to drink some blood.

Or at least that’s what American Horror Story’s 10th season would like you to believe. For the uninitiated, AHS is a scary, gory, soapy horror anthology series. Each of its 10 bizarre seasons has focused on a different premise tackled by a rotating subset of a large cast of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s favorite actors.

AHS: Double Feature is, as the name would suggest, actually two mini-seasons. The first of these two features is called “Red Tide,” a modern-day horror miniseries about a sleepy resort town in New England plagued by vaguely vampiric blood-sucking weirdos.

Here’s the interesting part: the sharp-toothed weirdos are the by-product of a drug that promises artistic success, but only to a chosen few. A character known only as The Chemist (Angelica Ross) has developed a sleek black pill that the characters refer to as “the Muse,” which boosts creativity into warp speed.

But there are a few catches: most notably, the Muse only works if you have talent. If you’re talentless, you’ll suffer a fate worse than death if you swallow the little black pill.

On screen, the writers in this season are screenwriters, novelists, and playwrights. These folks are concerned with writing as an income source in addition to writing as a pure art form, which separates them from poets, who today are rarely able to make their entire living by their pen. But other than that, it’s very possible to think about the implication of the “Muse” pill not just for poets, but for creatives and makers of all types.

What’s it like to watch this mini-season as a poet? Let me tell you about it.

“To work without distraction—”

AHS says, “Even if you have the time to work, only the talented make anything worthwhile.”

Truth Factor: F

The characters who populate this mini-season of American Horror Story come to Provincetown, Massachusetts in order “to work without distraction.” The kind of work that they wish to do is creative, and the Gardner family (Finn Wittrock as Harry, Lily Rabe as Doris, and Ryan Kiera Armstrong as daughter Alma) is far from alone in seeking the off-season tourist destination as a quiet sanctuary from which to make their art.

I think about the role that distraction plays in the life of an artist quite a bit. What constitutes distraction? Certainly a neighbor’s car alarm blaring is an unequivocal distraction, and the drudgery of laundry and chores can feel like a distraction even though it’s necessary. But what else? Is having a pet a distraction? What about a partner or children?

I’ll be tackling the role that distraction plays in the creative life even further in next week’s post! Subscribe to have it delivered to your inbox.

For now, I’ll note that the allure of solitude as an in-road to creativity is one of the creative’s oldest myths. It’s true that capitalist society we live in absolutely deprivileges any endeavor that doesn’t make money and many groups of people have been historically excluded from the kinds of opportunities and rights that make creativity easier to get in touch with. But the other truth is that those who make the time to write are the ones who write. Poets have written from the margins of extremely difficult lives and the cushy excess of wealth and repose. Creativity can happen in five stolen minutes or on five-month sojourn in the woods.

Harry also says that he’s seeking the “inspiration” that others have found in this particular place. Inspiration is another imprecise and opaque term that creatives like to wield like a meat cleaver when what they need is the delicate slice of a scalpel.

But the truth is that we don’t “find” inspiration or the motivation to work or create out of thin air. Inspiration isn’t a stone you can pluck off the shoreline or a pill you can swallow. It’s a force that you generate yourself—you are your own private engine.

The seemingly innocuous quest for solitude and inspiration that brings the Gardner family to Provincetown in “Red Tide,” then, is built on two ho-hum myths about the creative process.

But the more insidious claim that AHS makes is that, given time and solitude, only those who have a mysterious inborn “talent” (a term that show declines to define or speculate about in any real way) are able to use solitude to its fullest potential and create worthwhile art.

That’s just a big fat lie. Every moment that even the most amateur or inexperienced person spends making something, whether it be a painting or a poem or a blog post about a horror soap (cough) is one of the single most worthwhile things that person can do with their precious time on earth.

Talent doesn’t figure into the equation: I would like for all of us to spend most of our time creating art in comfort and quietude, regardless of our capitalist, patriarchal notions of “quality.” But AHS’s vision of the creative life is far bloodier than that.

“It takes pain to make beautiful things.”

AHS says, “You have to do violence to yourself and others in order to be an artist.”

Truth Factor: D-

In a quote attributed to Hemingway, a writer supposedly once said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

There’s much to say about the mythology of the tortured artist and the tortured writer in particular. Next week’s post about depictions of the writing process will touch on this, too, but in the context of “Red Tide,” it bears scrutinizing the relationship of actual violence to creativity.

“Red Tide” features painters, interior designers, musicians, and other creative types. But writers are the show’s central obsession, which is no surprise—television like this, of course, the product of writers’ imaginations. In many ways, writers have the capacity to do violence when they are writing about people who are known to them. We love to talk about the relationship of characters to actual people and whether or not ending up in someone’s story or novel is brutality or simply the price of associating with writers.

Beyond their content, if writers are engrossed in their work, neglecting their families, and willing to do whatever it takes to be a “success,” as Harry Gardner (Finn Wittrock) is in this season, that, too, is a kind of violence.

But in this season, actual blood is shed in service of pursuing art.

The key tradeoff of the Muse is that if you take it and have talent, you will have success only as long as you continue to drink the blood of other human beings.

Yeah, you read that correctly. The show takes the idea that writers drain the people around them for inspiration and makes it quite literal: to be a successful writer for Austin Sommers (Evan Peters, as always, a jewel), Belle Noir (ditto Frances Conroy), and Harry Gardner, they need to rack up a body count.

Some of the characters feel that this is a worthwhile trade; others do not. The rationale for the continued violence that the characters who continue to take the Muse perpetrate on others is that their hunger for success outweighs any other desire. And if the price of artistic success is death, then so be it.

This chilling exchange rings truer to me than some of the other more outlandish caricatures the show draws, which is why, I expect, the show ultimately discards its other arguments and interests by the season’s end, opting to drive full-speed into the success-or-bust trope by season’s end.

“There’s nothing more addictive than success.”

AHS says, “The pursuit of success is the reason that creative people create.”

Truth Factor: C+

Success is sweet, there’s no doubt about that. And the most accurate critique AHS attempts to make is of America’s obsession with success and fame. Murphy & Falchuk would have you believe that succeeding as an artist is the only reason why anyone ever lifts a pen.

But for writers and creatives of all types, the flow state of pure creations is, I would argue, much more addictive than success.

How do I know? Because the life of an artist is mostly made up of periods of creation and abject failure or stasis punctuated, if we’re lucky, by success. If success were our core motivator, very few people would make art.

The notion of success as a whole is, at its root, antithetical to the concept of creativity.

Think about all the people you know who continue to make art even if they’re not “successful” by whatever metric you choose: artists who never sell a painting but continue to paint, writers who never complete their novel but keep returning to it or starting over, violinists who don’t end up playing in Carnegie Hall but still play their instrument all their life in lower-stakes contexts.

One of the most fucked up things about this season is the way it conflates talent and success. The marker of talent is success. If you are talented, you succeed. But the notion of success as a whole is, at its root, antithetical to the concept of creativity.

In her influential The Artist’s Way, writer Julia Cameron wrote that the reward for the creative life is the creative life itself. That is the covenant that the artist makes with herself. Making art changes the way you move through the world, offers you a meaningful ritual, and provides an outlet for expression, among countless other intangible, not-going-to-make-you-any-money reasons.

The act of creation, then, is the self-sufficing reason that people make things. The addictive power comes from the joy of creating, not from any promise of success. Who in their right mind would continue playing an instrument or painting or writing if it did not bring them some intrinsic happiness?

When it comes to creativity, there are no Haves and Have-Nots. Mercifully, there is no such black pill that will allow you to find out if you have an utterly subjective level of “talent.” So for now, go get yourself a black jellybean, swallow it, and tell yourself that you are exactly the creative talent that you already know you are.

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