Monday 9 January 2012

Mental Illness and Creativity

I was at a workshop this weekend which said that 56% of writers at a conference said they had a mood disorder (eg depression, anxiety).  Compare this with 15% of the general population and you start thinking that maybe this whole stereotype of creative types being crazy isn’t just jealousy.

It got me thinking, why so many troubled people in creative careers?  Is it because their art provides a form of therapy?  Or is it a side effect of being off balance that you can explore new ideas?  Sort of the same way you make an airplane more maneuverable by reducing the structural stability.  By making it less stable, it’s better able to react to what the pilot is doing.

It’s probably some kind of combination of both.  If you’re sensitive, unable to shut out the world around you, you’ll notice more of what’s going on.  When you can share your insights with others, it makes for compelling art, no matter the form.  But the same sensitivity is going to make it impossible for you to ignore things that other people can.  If your skin has been burned raw, you’ll feel every little breeze and draft, but a touch on the shoulder will make you scream.

A big fear is that if you fix the mental challenges, you’ll lose your creativity.  We’ve all heard of people refusing to take medication because they’re afraid of losing their gift.  In the movie A Beautiful Mind, he chooses to live with hallucinations from his schizophrenia because the medication makes him unable to see the patterns, unable to do the work he loves. 

What price would you pay for creativity?  Would being able to write transcendently beautiful music be worth being isolated and tormented like Beethoven?  It’s a tough question but maybe it’s the wrong one.  There are lots of people out there living horrible, crappy lives.  They spend their days and nights in unrelieved misery.  It’s tragic, when you think about it.  They don’t all create masterpieces.  So maybe the right question is: wouldn’t be awful if Beethoven had been that miserable and never created a darn thing worth listening to?

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