Vincent cut off his ear, Ernest put a gun to his head, Sylvia used a gas oven. Does creativity always sit close to psychoses?
Last week I finished a long term writing project. The final full-stop. The final edit. The neat, white stack of printed pages sitting beside me on my desk. How to describe the wonderful feeling that came with completion?
For some years I’ve been writing a novella on a fairly touchy topic. It’s been a demanding piece that revealed itself at its own pace, and only when I was ready to deal with its challenges.
On completion, I bounced around happily for a few days and then noticed the initial sense of elation and satisfaction was beginning to slip away. Worse, it was replaced by doubt. Perhaps it wasn’t so good? Perhaps no one would want to read such a shocking story?
Almost immediately, I noticed myself becoming grumpy and niggly. Everything around the house that had been neglected while I was lost in my writing, loomed larger than life itself. The dripping tap. The fish pond clogged with autumn leaves. The garden full of weeds. Why did it fall to me to notice these things?
Unlike Vincent, I began to look at knives and my husband’s ear. Not quite, but you get the idea.
Disturbed writers and crazy artists, troubled geniuses and drunken, drug-addicted creatives, are the stuff of myth.
Think Brett Whitely and the reclusive poet, Emily Dickenson, think Eugene O’Neill and William Faulkner and the great Swedish playwright, August Strindberg, not to forget Isaac Newton and Virginia Woolf, all plagued in various ways by psychoses.
So to produce great art, or develop great science, does it help to be a little mad?
In his book, ‘Creativity & Madness’, American author and psychotherapist, Albert Rothenberg, suggests the opposite.
Rothenberg researched and interviewed over 2000 prize-winning artists and scientists and, despite history’s long list of troubled artists, he concluded that the great majority are boringly sane.
At the risk of trivialising his complex conclusions, this is how his findings translate for me:
Certainly, most artists have a childhood event or past trauma that might trigger a sensitivity to interior thought and creativity.
This often produces a level of anxiety that the creative person finds can be relieved by externalising it in their work, be it writing or painting or sewing or planning a garden.
Once they enter that creative space, the anxiety is reduced and after a period of work they emerge feeling much more peaceful.
This is not a permanent state and before long the niggle of anxiety returns and needs to be relieved yet again by another bout of withdrawal into the artistic space.
And because it can take a long period of time to produce a work of art or a scientific breakthrough—often years of concentrated effort—it requires a lot of sanity to live with that daily anxiety.
This, says Rothenberg, is why the majority of artists he researched produced great work without impeding their progress with drink or drugs or knives or guns.
I find his theories helpful. Knowing these daily ups and downs, elations and doubts, are a normal part of the creative process, I'm more easily able to live with the long term demands of writing a novel.
Now, if I’m feeling frustrated and anxious, I know I’ve been away from my inner space for too long. And although many people enter that space through running or gardening or painting, and often through yoga or a daily meditation practise, I mostly find it through writing.
The relief from external anxieties is instant. That meditative, inner space--or 'god' space as I like to call it--offers only peace. And when I return to the real world, I’m a much nicer person to be around. No niggles. No knives. At least not unless I'm taken away from my routine again for too long.
How do you live a creative life and stay sane? I'd love to know what works for you.
Source: Albert Rothenberg MD, Creativity & Madness, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore & London, 1990
Featured photo of Hemingway writing at campsite in Kenya by Look Magazine.