The Danger of Being Creative?

I read Yellow Raft in Blue Water for my Indigenous literature class (for the millionth time: I’m obsessed with Native American literature) and fell in love with the book—only to learn via the prof that the author Michael Dorris had committed suicide later in his life.

Then I read Bone Games which I grew very, very fond of—only to learn in class that the author Louis Owens had also committed suicide. Learning consecutively of these two deaths disturbed me greatly. It got me thinking about writers in connection to these darker aspects of life—depression, drugs, alcohol, suicide. Even in movies about artists, many depict them as being somewhat psychologically unbalanced–madness subsumes creativity.

To name a few other writers who committed suicide…

Sylvia Plath
Louis Adamic
Arthur Adamov
Francis Adams
Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
Jean Améry
Raymond Andrews
Hubert Aquin
Nelly Arcan
Reinaldo Arenas
José María Arguedas
Takeo Arishima
James Robert Baker
R. H. Barlow
Rex Beach
Gertrude Bell
Victoria Benedictsson
Steven “Jesse” Bernstein
H. S. Bhabra
Samuel Laman Blanchard
Ernest Borneman
Menno ter Braak
Henry Joseph Steele Bradfield
Richard Brautigan
Frederick Hazlitt Brennan
Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić
Eustace Budgell
Andrés Caicedo
George Caragonne
Don Carpenter
Camilo Castelo Branco
Konstantin Chkheidze
Samson Cerfberr of Medelsheim
Ana Cristina César
Nicolas Chamfort
Iris Chang
Thomas Chatterton
Charles Clegg
Charmian Clift
Danielle Collobert
Charles Caleb Colton
Courtney Ryley Cooper
Branko Ćopić
Cláudio Manuel da Costa
Elise Cowen
Hart Crane
Thomas Creech
James Ashmore Creelman
René Crevel
Harry Crosby
Géza Csáth
Will Cuppy
Zo d’Axa
Osamu Dazai
Aldo De Benedetti
Roy Andries De Groot
Gilles Deleuze
Penelope Delta
Frederick Van Rensselaer Dey
Thomas Disch
Tove Ditlevsen
Chris Doty
Pierre Drieu La Rochelle
K. Sello Duiker
Tristan Egolf
Carl Einstein
Alexander Alexandrovich Fadeyev
Fan Changjiang
Ham Fisher
John Gould Fletcher
Vsevolod Garshin
Romain Gary
Helen Palmer Geisel
Peter George
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Guy Gilpatric
Richard Glazar
Spalding Gray
William Lindsay Gresham
Paul Gruchow
Juan Carlos Gumucio
Stephen Haggard
Kenneth Halliwell
St. John Emile Cavering Hankin
Tamiki Hara
James Harden-Hickey
Horace Hart
Walter Hasenclever
Rashad Hashim
Beatrice Hastings
James Hatfield
Sadeq Hedayat
Thomas Heggen
Carolyn Gold Heilbrun
Ernest Hemingway
Leicester Hemingway
Jarl Hemmer
Iva Hercíková
James Leo Herlihy
Ashihei Hino
Marek Hłasko
Jane Aiken Hodge
Merton Hodge
Robert E. Howard
Robin Hyde
Evald Ilyenkov
Kaan İnce
William Inge
Charles R. Jackson
Philipp Jaffé
Morris K. Jessup
Orrick Glenday Johns
B. S. Johnson
Maurice Joly
Ingrid Jonker
Philippe Jullian
Sarah Kane
Yasunari Kawabata
Bizan Kawakami
Anthony Paul Kelly
Douglas Kenney
Heinrich von Kleist
Jochen Klepper
Fletcher Knebel
Arthur Koestler
Sarah Kofman
Hannelore Kohl
Nikola Koljević
Jan Potocki
Lucien-Anatole Prévost-Paradol
Gert Prokop
Dragoş Protopopescu
Qiu Miaojin
Horacio Quiroga
Jean Joseph Rabearivelo
Alexander Radishchev
Ferdinand Raimund
Richard Realf
Liviu Rebreanu
Liam Rector
Cale Young Rice
Jacques Rigau
Roger-Arnould Rivière
Amelia Rosselli
Berton Roueché
Mário de Sá-Carneiro
Emilio Salgari
Thomas Parker Sanborn
Sanmao
John Monk Saunders
Runar Schildt
William Seabrook
Seneca the Younger
Anne Sexton
Gennady Shpalikov
Eli Siegel
Edward Stachura
Frank Stanford
George Sterling
Adalbert Stifter
John Augustus Stone
Alfonsina Storni
Michael Strunge
Mikhail Sushkov
Hidemitsu Tanaka
Rudolf Těsnohlídek
Hunter S. Thompson
James Tiptree, Jr.
Ernst Toller
John Kennedy Toole
Julien Torma
Felipe Trigo
Kurt Tucholsky
Peter Tyrrell
Dorothy Uhnak
Urmuz
Reetika Vazirani
Louis Verneuil
Vsevolod Kochetov
David Foster Wallace
Albert Wass
Gary Webb
Otto Weininger
Ernst Weiss
Lew Welch
Edward Lucas White
Gustav Wied
Charles Williams
Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz
Alfred Witte
Wally Wood
Virginia Woolf
Shōji Yamagishi
Francis Parker Yockey
A. P. Younger
Unica Zürn
Stefan Zweig

In an article called “Exploring Artistic Creativity And Its Link to Madness” by Kate Stone Lombardi I came across some interesting facts:

  • Research has revealed disproportionately high rates of mood disorders — particularly manic depression, or bipolar disorder, and chronic depression — among creative people. Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, concluded in her study ”Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament” that among distinguished artists the rate of such depressive illnesses is 10 to 30 times as prevalent as the population at large.
  • Dr. Felix Post, a British psychiatrist, studied more than 100 writers, but concluded — to his surprise — that prose writers were prone to even more depressive bouts than poets though both were inclined to instability.
  • Artists appear to be mentally disturbed because both madness and creativity are rooted in the unconscious, Dr. Barten said. She added that the secret and threatening emotions of the inner life — aggression, sexual fantasy and other unwanted impulses — are repressed in everyday life but expressed by the artist in raw form, devoid of defenses and in a sense, therefore, in a ”mad” form.

There’s those facts and theories.

And then there’s this interesting take on creativity:

A brief overview of some of the questions she raises and answers:

  • What is it specifically about creative ventures that seems to make us worried about the writer’s mental health?
  • We have come to internalize collectively the idea that creativity and suffering are inherently linked. Are we cool with this idea? Are we comfortable with this assumption?
  • It is dangerous to start leaking down this dark path of assumptions. Writers need to learn how to create a protective, psychological construct between the author as he/she is writing and his/her very natural anxiety of what the reaction to the final product will be.
  • How do we tap into our inspiration without letting the inherent emotiona risks harm us?

On a lighter note (!!!), here’s the trailer for a book written by the awesome M.M. Bennetts!

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26 Comments

Filed under Book & Film, Thoughts, Writing

26 responses to “The Danger of Being Creative?

  1. I went to mental counseling for a year before I quit because the counselor was a douchebag.

    But yeah, I have a feeling that writers have more intense feelings than the average person.

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  2. I get depressed very often. And I become maniacally happy even more often. But, I hope I never get suicidal.

    I’m sharing this on my blog.

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    • I get mood swings real often. Will be happy one moment then brooding the next. While this is not a great thing, it helps with my writing, because I’m able to adjust my mood to what the character feels more easily

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  3. Pingback: The Danger of Being Creative? (via June H.) « The Hotchpotch

  4. Megs

    Oh my, that’s really disturbing to think about.

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  5. Holy Snap…that’s some list…

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  6. My husband called me bipolar last night. He was kidding. Kinda. But creativity means letting yourself experience emotion to its full intensity, I think–undampened and unhindered. And, well, let’s be honest–the writing life is a frustrating and trying one sometimes, even with success. I just hope and pray that anyone at that deep of a low seeks help.

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  7. wow, this was intense. But it is also one of writer’s “go-to” ‘s for preventing them from any creative endeavor. We don’t want to write because we think “oh no we might go crazy” or “become an artist who commits suicide” but I think this most likely will not happen.

    Why? Think about it. Who did they define as people who were “writers”? People who have been published? Well that isn’t many. There are tons of writers who probably were’nt famous and published, who tracked to see how they did? How about all those people who are writers or who deny it? There are plenty of them out there as I keep up with my blog, they come to me and say they don’t tell anyone else they are a writer.

    Writers are notorious for being hidden, just like an illegal immigrants, you really can never count them all. The estimates are probably half of what is actually out there, which would mean that those statistics would be pretty off, if I am guessing.

    Then there is the idea of celebrity, which magnifies societies problems into one group. So that we see a celebrity like michael jackson and we assume that oh “it’s because of his celebrity” when there are millions of people who overdoes on drugs every day, and yet they do not get attention.

    There are non-writers who suffer from depression, non-writers who commit suicide, non writers who are loners etc, but they don’t get attention because they don’t become well known, their thoughts are not shared with the masses.

    I’m not saying this is not an issue to be concerned about, I’m saying that its an issue about humanity not artists. Why are not teaching people who to be more hopeful, how to be more positive, why do reward sensationalism and small events blown out of proportion, and not reasonable, objective, pragmatic ways of dealing with things.

    I think its a problem, but its part of a big picture that involves a lot of people. And I’m done. Off my soap box. 😉

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    • I had similar thoughts to your own. I think the whole idea of mad, genius artists is something that intrigues the average person. I mean, beside Miss Potter, it’s rare to come across a movie about a psychologically balanced author free from depression and suicidal thoughts. And I’m sure there are many, many such authors who aren’t suicidal. But like you said, the focus is on celebrity-like writers. The pressure to create something great itself might be a big factor as to why the authors are suicidal. Also, those who do committ suicide, it’s not always their art that drives them mad/their creativity, but issues that arise from their life. Family problems. External conflicts.

      With that said, as a writer myself, I do agree with the idea that creativity in a sense can be harmful if there is no balance. There’s an obsessive quality tied to the creation of art and also that desire to please the public can also be a major stress factor. Writing–well, the phrase “Write your heart out” pretty much sums for me why writers can be so vulnerable to depression. It’s all such an emotional process that a writer must daily engage with.

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  8. I have to say that I’m shocked at the number of authors on the list. I kept scrolling…and scrolling…Wow. I knew that there were several, but seeing the list is sobering.

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    • It is indeed very long. And these are just the well known authors. It got me thinking how much longer the list would be if the average writer was included. Or whether this has something to do with sensationalism, as Ollin pointed out.

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  9. This is such an interesting topic. Yes I think there is a danger to being creative in the way we percieved danger. But it was “dangerous” for God to create humanity, wasn’t it?

    I just finished an essay about Jung and his beliefs regarding the Shadow (which is the “dark side” of the self). Each person has repressed qualities that they have to overcome in the end – assimilate into their understanding of themselves. So they can’t just ignore the Shadow or allow it to consume themself in return.

    So relating to creativity… I think creativity allows us to face the Shadow heads-on in ways that non-creativity can’t. Because creativity often calls for the unconventional/the taboo/etc. the writer is also called to branch out towards those areas.

    In the end it probably all comes down to balance… true art isn’t just suffering; it also contains joy and redemption. It contains depth in the way that a good painting contains both highlights and shadows. A lot of the great works out there – Shakespeare, Beethoven, and so forth – appeal to us because many facets of being human (a spectrum of emotions) all at the same time, leaving us with “Wow, that was EPIC.”

    On another note, if you want to listen to something absolutely heart-wrenching/emotional… Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony. It’s just SO LUSH AND GORGEOUS!

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    • “But it was “dangerous” for God to create humanity, wasn’t it?”

      Oh, that was a niceeee line!

      I totally agree with you that creaitivity might come hand in hand with suffering, it is also accompanied by joy and redemption. For me, the focus in my writing is often on human suffering and redemption, so that always gives me perspective. Even in the darkest of times I am reminded that there is light. So writing, in that sense, is my therapy.

      Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony. LOVE LOVE LOVEDDD this piece! Thank you!!!!

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  10. A friend recently showed me that talk by Elizabeth Gilbert. I thought that it was a fantastic take.

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  11. That list was scary. Blimey. I sometimes wonder if a writer is without many defenses. That’s my theory. I find that my energy is so diffuse that I sometimes have trouble working out where I end and others begin. I feel other people’s pain too keenly. I can’t watch the news for that reason. Our ability to be open is a gift and a curse. We can empathize with everyone, we can imagine ourselves in anyone’s shoes but at the same time we can get overwhelmed with external emotion.
    Or is that just me…? 🙂

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    • I TOTALLY understand what you mean. I was actually going to bring this point up.

      For me, and maybe for you too, a lot of the creativity is inspired through our sensitivity. We have more to tap into because we feel more. And, like you said, while this can be a gift, it is also a curse. It’s not always healthy to feel TOO much. And yet, personally, this is needed to write the way I do since I tend to focus half my story on the emotions of characters.

      Great point, madam 🙂

      Like

  12. “Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”
    ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

    Like

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