Any artist or author can tell you where creativity comes from. It usually arrives when unexpected, as flashes of insight when focusing on something else. It cannot be controlled or called. True genius is spontaneous, wild, and unpredictable. But is it crazy?
Nietzsche made famous the distinction between Apollo, the rational mind, and Dionysus, the mind of madness and creativity; which we now understand as the conscious and subconscious mind. Naturally creative people, we might assume, turn off their rational, deliberate control more easily and embark into the misty waters of the subconscious, giving themselves over to creative inspiration.
In epochs past, these intuitives could have become priests or mystics or prophets, listening to the voices of the gods.
These days, they’d be locked up by their friends and family.
Michelle Roberts, Health editor of the BBC News online shares research that connects writers with insanity:
“Creativity is often part of a mental illness, with writers particularly susceptible, according to a study of more than a million people. Writers had a higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse, the Swedish researchers at the Karolinska Institute found. They were almost twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves.”
Lead researcher Dr Simon Kyaga said the findings suggested disorders should be viewed in a new light and that certain traits might be beneficial or desirable:
“For example, the restrictive and intense interests of someone with autism and the manic drive of a person with bipolar disorder might provide the necessary focus and determination for genius and creativity. Similarly, the disordered thoughts associated with schizophrenia might spark the all-important originality element of a masterpiece.”
Beth Murphy head of information at mental health charity Mind writes, “It is important that we do not romanticise people with mental health problems, who are too often portrayed as struggling creative geniuses.”
But the question remains, what needs to be treated, and at what cost?
From James Joyce to Picasso, our writer and artist heroes have been romanticized, even though their strange, obsessive, anti-social and narcissistic personalities often left a path of emotional wreckage behind them. Generalized anxiety disorder? Autism? Clinical Depression? How many of our Creative Geniuses would have earned these modern day diagnoses, and been prescribed something so that they could have more “normal” lives?
How to become more crazy
As someone with a history of mental instability (anxiety and depression, borderline OCD, migraine disorder), it’s fascinating to me how we long for the passionate creative genius of the artistic champions in our history but are also desperate to maintain a firm grip on our own mental processes at all times. We pay for courses to boost our creativity, but we also learn how to maximize our efficiency, control our thinking, be constantly self-vigilant, and if that fails – we see a psychiatrist who can give us something to calm our nerves.
In younger years, I felt I was touched by a muse, constantly burning with energy and enthusiasm and creativity – but I couldn’t funnel it or control it. I couldn’t keep a job, or a relationship, or produce anything meaningful (besides my art and writing, which were pretty good as those things go). I was on Celexa for a little while (like Prozac) but it made me sleep all day, so I quit.
I began taking St. John’s Wort just to keep my feet on the ground. Finally, my migraines forced me to seek alternative solutions and I found that a low dose of Amitriptyline kept away the anxiety and most of the headaches.
But being sane is a choice.
And the truth is, with as much competition as is out there, you need a collected, logical mind to identify the right marketing strategies to get your work seen. But sometimes, when you feel your creativity drying up or need fresh ideas, you need to let go and allow your crazy to come out.
There are lots of ways to go crazy.
Sometimes I’ll let myself not sleep for days, when I’m really excited about a new project.
Sometimes I’ll take Ayahuasca or other natural psychoactives.
Sometimes I’ll get drunk.
Sometimes I’ll fast for a week.
Sometimes I’ll curl up on the sofa and read a YA fantasy series.
Sometimes I’ll drink a lot of coffee or coke.
Sometimes I’ll take modafinil (like legal speed).
Sometimes I’ll take a long walk, play in the rain, listen to great music, dance, sing, or make new friends.
I like to put myself in different states of consciousness, and new experiences and surroundings, to challenge my idea of who I am.
Where do you draw the line?
My natural instinct is to say “You need to be able to take care of yourself, and not be a burden to your family or society.” That seems like a good rule for me. But how many of the greatest artistic geniuses in history couldn’t even keep up that much? How many ruined their families, lost their wealth, and were hated by their contemporaries – yet produced works that we now clamor to appreciate?
Is artistic vision a force so great it needs to be out of control? Maybe the cost of genius is destruction and unhappiness; the archetypal suffering poet/starving artist?
What do you think? Do you have to be a little crazy to get creative? How do you balance your creativity with your life, career and success?
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.