I’ve had this theory that I’ve held onto strongly over the years that in order to tap into your true creative side, you have to be a little, if not a lot, “crazy”.* You know, like Vincent van Gogh, cut-off-your-ear crazy. I know I’m not the one who created this theory, I just really bought into it. And I think I’ve used it as an excuse to feel better about my lack of creative production. I’d tell myself:
“You’re just an average person, you don’t have a mental illness so of course you can’t tap into that creativity. It’s okay that you haven’t created anything very good.”
There has been plenty of commentary, articles and even studies about the connection between creativity and mental illness. If you Google “artists and mental illness” you’ll come across plenty of lists and names you’ll recognize. I’m sure we can all come up with a few people off the top of our heads — Michael Jackson, Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Virginia Woolf, and one of my favorites, Mariah Carey and so on.** So many of these artists have battled clinical depression, bipolar disorder, alcoholism. They are/were creatively brilliant partly because their mental illness drives them (or so I believed).
When I was in my first year of college, my brother (the artist) and his friend experimented with drugs — pot, hallucinogens and I don’t know what else. When I went back home for break a few months later my brother’s friend was transformed. He went from a Revenge of the Nerds***, Dungeons and Dragons playing*** regular kind of guy to an agitated, couldn’t-sit-still, tweaking druggie. And his artwork went from pretty good to awesome! Amazing! Fantastic! This was all seen through my 18 or 19-year-old eyes, but that’s how I remember it. That memory only helped to drive the theory into my subconscious where I totally accepted it.
What does Stephan King say?
I began reading Stephen King’s book On Writing (thanks for the recommendation JM McDowell). It was on my To Read list, but I moved it to the top after JM’s suggestion. About half way through, when he talks about sobering up he says he was willing to give up writing if he could keep his marriage and his kids. But he didn’t have to give up either one. He says,
The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.
He attributes the perpetuation of this ‘myth’ to four writers:
Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson and Dylan Thomas. I know he’s talking about alcoholism, but some of these same names also appear on the ‘artist with mental illness’ list for clinical depression. It’s pretty common knowledge that many people with mental illness often struggle with alcoholism and/or drug addiction.
As I read King’s words I had an Aha! moment.
The Counter Argument
For the first time, I suddenly began to think of the counter argument to the theory. Even if studies have shown that as a group “artists” have mental illness at a higher rate when compared to the general population. So maybe there is a connection, but there are as many artists out there that are brilliant, creative, geniuses even, that do not have mental illness. They are somehow able to reach deep down, tap their creativity … even without the drink, the drugs, the hallucinations, the paranoia, the manic or the depression. They allow themselves to be vulnerable, they are brave enough to put their art out there, they are present with their muse and they create.
No more excuses!
So what does this mean for me now that I’ve busted this theory?
No more excuses! No more getting in my own way! No more not trying! In 5 or 10 years or (much later) when I’m old and grey I don’t want to look back and see all the excuses I’ve made that prevented me from writing because I was too afraid to try.
I want to look back, and whether I’ve failed or succeeded, I want to see that I tried … that I allowed myself to be as creative as I can be … and brave enough to put it out there.
* I debated about whether I should use the word ‘crazy’. I work with people with disabilities, including mental illness. In no way am I using the word flippantly or to offend. I’m using it to convey my thought process starting back when I was a teenager (when I didn’t know better) to now (when I do).
** I am not, in any way, comparing myself to this group of genius artists (okay maybe you wouldn’t use “genius artist” to describe Mariah, but hey, I’m biased, I’ve always liked her).
*** Not that there’s anything wrong with playing D&D or being a nerd … I like nerds!
- Link Between Creativity and Mental Illness Found in Large Study (sciencedaily.com)
- Writing Rejections and Going for that Overhead Smash (womensfictionwriters.wordpress.com)