“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.”
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!
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