What My Brother Taught Me About Making Good Art

My oldest brother told me once, when I suffered my first proper heartbreak, that I should turn the pain into something positive. Use it in your writing, he said. My brother had managed to package his efforts to comfort me in a profound piece of advice. I didn't take his advice back then -- I was young and foolish -- but his words has come back to me from time to time throughout the years. It was, I thought, a simple and beautiful philosophy for someone with creative ambitions. I felt there was truth in it.

Turn the pain into something positive. Use the darkness to make good art.

My oldest brother was always a very creative person. He was an excellent storyteller with an astute eye for beautiful imagery. He was skilled at drawing and painting with oil. I remember watching him draw in his room when he still lived at home and how I would try to emulate his style in my own drawings. When my brother was seventeen he moved to Stockholm to work as a cel animation artist on an animated movie. I was incredibly impressed. He was, quite simply, my idol when I grew up. I owe him a lot for being where I am today.

I work as a narrative designer at a Swedish game studio named MachineGames. For the last four years we've been hard at work developing the new Wolfenstein game. As a narrative designer, my job entails a lot of writing. Sometimes writing is easy. Sometimes it's difficult. And especially so when you feel uninspired. But when you are inspired, words flow like water on to the page. The trick for me to get into the flow has been to tap whatever source of inspiration is at hand. Books, games, or music. Things I've seen or experienced. Dreams. Whatever has the potential to kick start my inspiration, I will try to use. And the most potent source for me has been the darker aspects of life.

For the past week I've been listening to Swans' new album To Be Kind. Swans create music which can be both aggressive and tender at the same time. Like surging malevolent waves on a beautiful sea. Swans' lead figure Michael Gira is experienced in dealing with the darker side of life. He turned 16 locked up in a jail in Israel for selling hash. Up until that point he'd led a pretty harsh life for a young boy, doing methedrine on the streets of LA, hitchhiking around Europe, working in a copper mine and selling his own blood. When I listen to his music it's pretty obvious to me how this dark period of his life has affected his song writing. And I, in turn, am affected by his songs. They become bridges between our minds.

And even more interesting, amidst the darkness of his songs, is the humor that can be gleaned from them. Like little sparkling diamonds in a colossal mound of pitch black coal. In the song Failure Gira sings in a beaten tone: I can't even elegantly bleed. That's what we call "galghumor" in Swedish -- gallows humor. A type of humor that is very common in the north of Sweden, where the sun is a rare sight for half the year. Perhaps the long dark becomes more bearable when you can laugh at it.

Me and my brothers shared a weird affinity for gallows humor. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's all those episodes of Monty Python we watched together over and over. I have this vague childhood memory of us sitting together in our living room watching Eric Idle's character sing "Always look on the bright side of life" while hanging from his cross on Golgotha. Mark Twain elegantly contemplated this kind of humor in his travelogue Following the Equator: "Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven."

When you experience art, especially good art, something sticks with you. What this ethereal art stuff is varies from people to people. It's a subjective experience. Sometimes, we can use this stuff to understand the world and our place in the greater context. We can prepare ourselves for the unexpected. We can make the bad parts of life a little easier to handle.

But some things you can never be truly prepared for.

In the summer of 2010 my older brother committed suicide. He had suffered from a period of depression which had developed into a psychosis. When the news reached me, my world collapsed. The days that followed were spent in a state alternating between something dream-like and an acute, painful awareness of the reality of the situation. So many questions were asked. So few answered. Our family gathered to share memories of my brother as if we were trying to conjure him back into life with our words. I remembered what he said to me that day when it seemed my heart would never mend.

I think I understand now, where that came from. It's possible my brother had carried this baneful darkness within him for a very long time. Maybe his creativity was a way to channel the pain. His writing, his painting, or his films -- a way to fight the darkness. But in the end, it overpowered him.

To honor my brother I promised myself I would always try to do what he said. I would turn the pain into something positive. I would use the darkness to make good art. Because, as Mark Twain said, there's no humor in heaven.

Narrative Designer at MachineGames Studios living in Uppsala, Sweden. Recently helped launch the first-person action-adventure Wolfenstein: The New Order. Has previously worked on Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness. Hopes to one day make the perfect batch of Kimchi.