The Emotional Conquest of Creativity — Part 1: The Insanity Complex

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Bryan Charnley’s self-portrait, an artistic representation of his schizophrenia.

There is nothing more depressing to a writer than to believe that in order to be truly creative he or she must be depressed. At the very least, society proclaims, he or she must be dubbed insane, although “insanity” can range in definition from the extreme and clinical illness of schizophrenia to the simple act of stepping outside of social norms. Someone who is insane is commonly described as having lost touch with reality, but again, “reality” is such a vaguely defined and understood term that it is only natural to wonder if in certain cases insanity creates, or allows for, a creative and intellectual clarity.

Certainly the notion of creativity and insanity being related is not new. It derives from the time of Aristotle, with his famous quotation, “there is no great genius without a mixture of madness.” As a child I was familiar with the adage, “creativity is akin to insanity,” and I thought it common knowledge that one who is of unusual intelligence and creativity should suffer intellectually and emotionally. I have had a passion for writing and storytelling since I was very young, so I was not surprised, in fact, I almost seemed to expect it, when at the age of eighteen I was diagnosed with a mood disorder. Ah, this is my suffering, I thought, this will make me the writer that I am meant to be. Indeed, it did endow me with a greater sensitivity toward the world, but that I will discuss later. What is important is that I thought it good and natural that I had this inherent darkness within me; I thought it a necessary component to creativity.

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Sylvia Plath

The statistics didn’t help. At the time that I seriously began reading and writing poetry, I discovered the “Sylvia Plath Effect,” a terrifying concept presented by James C. Kaufman, and named after the poet Sylvia Plath, who notoriously committed suicide at the age of thirty by sticking her head into an oven and turning on the gas. Kaufman’s idea was that poets, and female poets especially, were more susceptible than those in any other profession to mental illness and to committing suicide at an early age. Anne Sexton, who locked herself in her garage with the car engine running, and Virginia Woolf (although she was arguably more of a novelist than a poet), who filled her pockets with stones and walked into a river near her home and drowned herself, are both prominent examples of authors who fit into this category. There were also such male examples as David Foster Wallace, Hunter S. Thompson, and Ernest Hemingway to provide further proof of the positive correlation between writers and increased suicide rates. It is no wonder that I decided, while experiencing a particularly difficult depressive episode, that I would commit suicide at the age of thirty-five. That would give me enough time, I believed, to accomplish all that I wished to accomplish in life, including marriage and children, and it also felt like the maximum amount of years I would be able to endure with such extreme anxiety and depression. I would die like all the other great writers, in a glorified and tragic suicide. Don’t misunderstand me, this was not something I decided whimsically or unrealistically. I was serious. The thought of having my death solidified within a definite year of my life gave me a sense of control over my uncontrollable emotions, and made me relieved to know that there would be an end to the torture that was my life.

What I didn’t notice or have the mental awareness to realize during the time I spent depressed, before I made the decision to try to live, was that I produced almost no substantial writing when my emotions were out of order. Any creative writing from that time is fragmented and incomplete; it is thick with dark, shocking images and vulgar language, and has absolutely no narrative arc. Reading that work is like listening to the babble of a sleepwalker, or skipping rapidly from station to station on the radio. It is without design or conscious structure. It is the writing of the insane! And it is not good writing. Looking back I can clearly see how twisted my idea of a relationship between creativity and mental illness made me. To write and create art was to suffer, and because writing was all that I loved, I was very willing to suffer and die for it, a martyr of the craft. My mind was too convoluted with these philosophies to recognize that my mental illness was not helping my creativity: it was hindering it.

This new idea, the idea of a mentally sound mind creating good art, did not find its genesis until my first year at University in an introductory Psychology course, in which I learned of a study that suggested the most intelligent people were also the most confident, the most social, the most successful, and the happiest. Of course, intelligence is not creativity, but it was a close enough connection to begin to break down the ideologies built up in my mind. I started seeing new 1467394_377909019011607_1805803869_nrelationships between creativity and mental illness. Certain questions cropped up, like whether, if the two were truly related, mental illness caused creativity or creativity caused mental illness, or if it was the lifestyle of an artist that made he or she more susceptible to mental illness. It is infinitely true that constant rejection of a writer’s creative work, the intense study of mostly corrupt human life, the pressure of going against tradition, and the isolation that the act of writing necessitates, only worsens mental illness. Another important question was whether people who are emotionally sensitive or already have a mental illness are more attracted to writing and other forms of art, as opposed to other professions, because of its therapeutic qualities and society’s acceptance (and almost expectation) of people within those lines of work to have a mental illness. These questions have still to be fully answered. A quick Google search shows how double sided the issue really is, and how many scholars are working to prove “insanity” is not a prerequisite to creativity.

To speak from personal experience, a positive mood has immensely benefited my ability to write. It is still the case that when I drop into a depression, I have difficulty stringing even two coherent sentences together. But I am not eternally positive. A sensitive heart and active emotions (and this is very different from a mood disorder, mind you) are always the chargers of my creative ability, and I wouldn’t give up my natural, though intense, tides of sadness, anger, and joy for anything. Perhaps William Wordsworth said it best, when he claimed that a poet must have a “comprehensive soul.” The mistake is to believe that having a comprehensive soul is the same as being mentally ill.

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