You Don’t Have to Be Crazy to Write – But it Helps!

“Being a fiction writer is a good way to go crazy … You continually pick at yourself, the little sores that you have. They scab over and you pick them open again. Other people not only let them scab over, they let them scar over … Writers don’t do that. They can’t keep their fingers out of the sore. They’ve got to keep it bleeding. And it’s off that blood that they make their stuff.”
Harry Crews

Most writers – indeed artists of all kinds – can relate to that quote. Have you ever told someone you’re a writer and have them give you a look that suggest you’re a little strange, or that says, “Shouldn’t you have given up that making-stuff-up lark when you hit puberty?”

“O why was I born with a different face?
Why was I not born like the rest of my race?”

So said William Blake in one of his letters and it’s something I think every artist has probably thought at one time or another. You can’t be an artist without feeling, in some way, that you stand apart from the rest of the pack. In a way it’s a kind of madness. As an artist, you are viewed and judged as something different – whether the judgment on that difference is positive or negative – in the same way that a “mad” person would be judged. But it’s also a necessary madness. You can’t hone your talents without some sacrifice. All writers, painters, and musicians of note have all, at one time or another, sacrificed something for their art. Blake sacrificed comfort and financial security and died penniless so he could pursue his art. Most people would think that’s mad.

But is there a link between madness and creativity?

It’s easy to be flippant in answering this question, to point at the drug addicts, the alcoholics, the suicides and say “Of course. All artists are mad.” But there are drug addicts and alcoholics and suicides in all walks of life. So what – or does anything – set the artist apart? Well, while we can’t generalise about artists anymore than we can generalise about any other section of the population, there are some statistics.

The following extract is from an article entitled “Writers and Alcohol” by Ann Waldron

“Nancy J. Andreasen, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa … did a 15-year study of 30 creative writers on the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where students and faculty have included well-known writers Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, John Cheever, Robert Lowell and Flannery O’Connor. She found that 30 percent of the writers were alcoholics, compared with 7 percent in the comparison group of non-writers …

Andreasen had begun her investigation to study the correlation between schizophrenia and creativity. She found none. But she did find that 80 percent of the writers had had an episode of affective disorders, i.e. a major bout of depression including manic-depressive illness, compared with 30 percent in the control group. Two thirds of the ill writers had received psychiatric treatment for their disorders. Two of the 30 committed suicide during the 15 years of the study.

The study is small but the relatively high rates of alcoholism and depression buttress the folk wisdom that creative artists are mad, with alcoholism an inevitable part of that insanity.”

And this excerpt from an article by Jane McGrath sheds some light on why this may be the case:

“Despite evidence of a link between genius and madness, no one has proved that such a link exists. However, scientists at the University of Toronto have discovered that creative people possess little to no “latent inhibition,” the unconscious ability to reject unimportant or irrelevant stimuli. As University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson puts it, “This means that creative individuals remain in contact with the extra information constantly streaming in from the environment. The normal person classifies an object, and then forgets about it, even though that object is much more complex and interesting than he or she thinks. The creative person, by contrast, is always open to new possibilities.”

So the next time someone looks like you’re mad because you’re a writer, remember, you’re in good company!

(Image: Click on pic for credits)

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10 comments on “You Don’t Have to Be Crazy to Write – But it Helps!

  1. jdhoward says:

    I read an article once about the eccentricities of famous artists. I was shocked to realize that I could I identify with them to some degree.

  2. writerlyderv says:

    Very insightful post, Derek. Found myself saying ‘yes, yes, yes’ to everything in your first paragraph.

  3. Sandy says:

    Seems to me, an artist’s gift (whichever the art) is to observe and interpret. I don’t think it’s possible to really observe the world around us without going just a little mad. Great post, Derek; thanks!

  4. I’m a logical creative – which explains the whole lawyer fantasy writer thing. It probably makes me less susceptible to depression and alcoholism, but sometimes makes me worry if it means I lack something a writer needs. Despite that, I had a reputation at school for being a little nuts, and I’ve had a co-dependent relationship with a sufferer of MPD, so I guess I don’t get a completely clean bill of health LOL

    Interestingly, I’m led to understand there are more sociopaths in the 99th percentile of the population (as measured by IQ) than in any other percentile. Company anyone could perhaps do without…

    • Derek Flynn says:

      I’ve read your post about dealing with the MPD sufferer, Ciara, and I think you’ve seen – perhaps more than many – what it’s like to deal with mental illness. And it’s not pretty.

  5. Hi Derek,

    I agree with you. I am certainly not very balanced and could do with being balanced some more, but anyone who holds constant inner conversations with characters and speaks of them as if they were actual people is probably going to fail a sanity test. But otherwise I wouldn’t be obsessed enough to discipline myself to get the work done.

    I have been told via the good offices of a psychometric test that I am highly emotionally unstable and blogged about the experience of being told my personality was not good enough. Speaking as an employed professional, I’d like to tell all the stigmatising parasites in the PR, psychometric, and social industries who think that accomplished people are not good enough to, well, do something with themselves, quite frankly. I don’t think you need to be sane to function in Ireland today. I think sanity, real sanity, is actually counterproductive, because Ireland is broken and has been probably since its foundation.

    Here I blog quite militantly about mental health and about how the real problem is that the perpetrators of stigma have not been punished for their behaviour. And note that writers are twenty more times to suffer depressive episodes than the rest of the population.
    http://www.joyofwriting.net/blog/?p=983

    And now I’d better to go work. That work that people like TCC and the Arbiters of Sanity, judging by their criteria, believe I am unfit for.

  6. Sadly this all seems too true. Brendan Behan said he was a drinker with a writing problem!! One of my daughters pointed out a particular pub to me in Galway City as being the graveyard of Irish literary ambition. It seems writers have gone in there and never been seen since!

  7. Susan says:

    Hey Kevin, I lived in Galway and drank in that self-same pub, but lived (and wrote!) to tell the tale 🙂

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