Weekly Musing: Madness and the Written Word – Part One

Note: This is part one of two posts regarding mental illness, creativity, and writers. Part one discusses what research has to say on the subject. Part two will relate my own personal experiences.

 When people hear the word writer most immediately think of a tortured, mad, insane, person who toils away in poverty. One day he or she dies, usually by their own hand, their art undiscovered and unloved until revealed to the world post-mortem. This gives the impression all artists, especially writers, must have some form of mental illness. After all we’re in a profession where rejection is the maddening norm, characters talk to us all the time, and we imagine new worlds. As someone who is both a writer and has both depression and anxiety I got to thinking. Is this really true? Is there some correlation between creativity and mental illness? Are writers a bit more off the deep end than the general population?

Curious, I decided to do some research and see if there were answers to these questions. After I poked around the internet and discovered studies have indeed been done I came to the conclusion the answers were mixed. Some psychologists and psychiatrists have used control groups to study the matter. Others have examined retrospectively the lives of famous authors, both those who committed suicide vs. those who did not, to see if there’s a correlation.

One of the first in-depth studies was conducted by Dr. Nancy Andreasen in 1987. In her study she used participants in the famous Iowa Writers Workshop and examined them against a control group. Her results indicated a higher occurrence of mental illness in the writers than the control group. In particular bipolar disorders, depression, and alcoholism were higher for the writers vs. the control group.

In 1997 Dr. Arnold Ludwig concluded people in artistic professions were more likely to have mental illness. In his study he examined several different artistic professions studying biographies published over a 30 year period.

Following the method of retroactively examining the lives of famous writers, Dr. James Kaufman also concluded writers, in particular female poets, suffered from higher rates of mental illness. In fact the rate of mental illness was so noticeably higher than male poets and other kinds of writers of either gender it earned the nicknamed “The Sylvia Plath Effect” after the poet and novelist Sylvia Plath who committed suicide at the age of 30.

But do these studies show a correlation between creativity and mental illness? Does one cause the other? Articles I read disagreed. Some believed yes, while others, including one written by Dr. Albert Rothenberg, argued against drawing such a conclusion. Yes, some writers fit the stereotype of “mad” writer, but for every Sylvia Plath or Ernest Hemingway there are writers like William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Anton Chekov who did not suffer from mental illness. Was they’re creativity affected by not having a mental illness?

There seems to this tendency to romanticize suffering from mental illness as fueling creativity. We see it as people turn to drugs or alcohol to jump start the muse. Other may refuse treatment because to receive help will interrupt the fire of creativity. I need to be able to feel pain and suffering dammit!

But for others, having mental illness and it being the sole source of creativity isn’t the case. For example, depression and anxiety, when more active, seem to suppress the level of creativity. When the mental illness is being treated, the writer’s stress level is low and he or she is in a “good place”, creativity usually flourishes. Other kinds of mental illness, like bipolar and schizophrenia may help creativity.

 

While the evidence seems to lean toward writing, creativity, and mental illness going hand in hand, it’s vitally important for every writer to realize 1) just because you are a writer it doesn’t mean you have a mental illness, and 2) if you do have a mental illness, do not ignore it. Do not eschew treatment. Suffering doesn’t make a person nobler or stronger. Suffering does not equal great art. Your mental illness is not responsible for your creativity. You, and you alone are responsible for your words.

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Weekly Musing: What Fuels Creativity?

Note: Apologies for being MIA for over a month. Life had been intervening, not in a bad way, for the past several weeks. Things should be calming down enough to allow me to get back on track. Thanks for your patience.

Ever since I was a kid I’ve always been fascinated by creativity. Going as far back as elementary school I would watch behind-the-scenes specials of shows and movies. I was blown away by how special effects, storylines, characters, sets, etc. were created. As I’ve gotten older I am still fascinated by creativity in all areas from music to art to dance and of course, writing. To see other people’s expression is amazing. How did they come up with that? It’s awe-inspiring and intimidating to know someone’s mind works on a different level than mine.

To this day I still love watching special features and listening to interviews with fellow creative types to learn where their inspirations come from. Often I have wondered what sparks creativity and listening to others has taught me it can come from anything. Many joke without coffee or tea the muse will continue to slumber. Others joke without copious amounts of alcohol and drugs they are unable to create.

Beyond those stimuli, what really is the root of creativity? It’s this need, this want to express ourselves in whatever form fits. An individual’s life experiences also spur it acting as a healthy way for us to deal with emotions and events both good and bad. Seeing the world around us and wanting to process how it makes us feel also causes us to create. Some use their art to comment on what they feel is lacking or is too much of in society.

Obvious writing is my creative outlet. What drives it is it the only outlet I feel comfortable with and seem to have some aptitude for. What inspires me to create comes from a variety of sources. Sometimes it’s a show I’m watching. Sometimes it’s what I see going on in the world. Other times it comes from an internal struggle I’m going through. Other times I simply can’t put my finger on where an idea comes from; it just comes.

To me it is vital we all have a creative outlet. It doesn’t matter if anyone sees it and one certainly doesn’t need to pursue it as a career. Not to sound New Agey or full of “woo”, but without a creative outlet of some kind a person risks burying emotions clamoring to be released. Creating something, no matter its format, allows for such a release. Whatever drives your creativity, embrace it.

Weekly Musing: Living Creatively

My own creativity is something I finally started listening to when I was already into adulthood. What I mean is that is when I started giving in to urges to just do something, anything, to get ideas, thoughts, emotions, my voice out I always held back. Eventually I figured out it to let it out. And guess what? I think it has made my life so much better.

Creativity has been something that has always fascinated me. Even as a kid I remember watching behind-the-scenes specials about how Fraggle Rock was made, how HBO’s opening sequence before each show was made, or special effects behind movies. The older I got the more I was still fascinated by how people came up with their ideas for books, movies, songs, art, whatever and however people expressed themselves. I am one of those people who still buys DVDs mainly for the special features and commentaries. I love searching for interviews with my favorite musicians and writers whenever they talk about their process and inspiration.

I was jealous because these people had managed to tap into a side of them I hoped I had. Deep down there was a voice desperate to get out but I couldn’t figure out what my avenue would be. I can’t draw; my stick figure people look like they have orthopedic problems. I can sorta play an instrument but I’m a mediocre musician on a good day. Composing my own songs is out of the question and my singing voice is best left to the car. I’m okay at taking pictures but not enough to fire up my creativity. Dancing is out as I trip over flat surfaces.

Finally it dawned on me to explore creative writing. After all I was a strong writer in school and had on and off come up with stories, even beginning some. The more I got into writing, not only did I become a happier person, the more I wanted to explore creativity and what fuels it. It has also given me confidence to explore other avenues of creativity.

It’s interesting to see how doing one creative activity can snowball into others. For example, I have always enjoyed cooking, more so when I started going off script. With the exception of baking, an activity I only do around Christmas, I view most recipes as suggestions. If I don’t have a particular spice, I’ll substitute. I like being able to increase or decrease the level of heat in a dish. I love playing around with different flavor combinations especially since I enjoy food from all over the world.

Another example of expanding my creativity is recently I have taken up coloring. Now on the surface this doesn’t sound like much, but for me coloring is a way for me to create art. I never really liked coloring as a kid because I was too busy trying to stay within the lines and color realistic-looking cats and dogs. But with adult coloring books, the designs are abstract so I don’t feel as if I have to conform to the norm which I sorta natural rebel against. Conformity = confinement as far as I’m concerned.

Having different creative outlets benefits my writing. Firstly, I have to concentrate completely on whatever that other activity is. Once my brain loses focus is when I start making mistakes. Secondly, engaging in another form of creativity rests the part of my brain I’ve been using for hours to write. Anyone who thinks using one’s mind isn’t physically exhausting hasn’t really ever used his or her brain. Thirdly, it allows for expressions of emotions and thoughts which simply cannot be express in the written word. This is why music, art, dance, etc. exist.

Perhaps I’m odd but somehow I’m able to turn off my writer’s brain when I do other activities. Or maybe I’m burying whatever issues I’m struggling with subconsciously yet my mind isn’t really “off”. No matter how I do it, the rest refreshes me so that when I turn on my writing brain it opens up the flood gates. I think this might be true for other creative types. I know writers who also paint, draw, or are musicians. There are actors who also sing, dance, or write for fun. Artists who write, make films, or play music as well.