To No One’s Surprise, I’m a Borderline Psychotic

From The Social and Emotional Development of Gifted Children:  What Do We Know? (Pages 167-168):

Concentrating primarily on writers and visual artists, an additional body of research has focused specifically on the emotional health of artistically gifted adults.  These studies consistently conclude that there is a significantly higher incidence of mood disorders and suicide among gifted writers and visual artists.  Many of these studies provide compelling evidence that high creative achievement in writing or visual arts shares three characteristics with mood disorders:  alteration of mood, certain types of thinking processes, and a tolerance for irrationality . . .

Jamison (1993) suggested that elevated mood precedes periods of creative productivity, with mood changes opening or inhibiting thought, thus stimulating greater creativity.  Depression may have an important role in slowing the pace of thought, putting feelings and ideas into perspective, and eliminating irrelevant notions . . . Cognitive traits common to both creativity and hypomania are fluency, rapidity, and flexibility of thought coupled with the ability to combine ideas to form new, original thinking relationships (Jamison).  Rothenberg concluded that the cognitive ability to combine paradoxes or superimpose discrete objects characterizes both psychotics and persons predisposed to high levels of creativity.  However, his research also describes a narrow but distinct boundary between psychotic processes and creative thought. 

My wife picked up this book for a class as part of her continuing teacherification.  Even though, as it turns out, she didn’t need the book, she read this section to me and I found it particularly interesting in what it says about writing and the creative process in general.

Throughout my life, I have been recognized as one of many people that fit this description of creatively gifted people.   I possess all the classic signs offered here—good and bad—and, more importantly, my wife says so.  My moods tend to run darker than average, often during my greatest times of creative productivity.  Some of the best writing I’ve ever done came a few years ago when I was at a point of such despair that I didn’t know if I would ever see happiness again.

Now, I certainly don’t want to say that to be a good writer your life must give you lemonade and tell you to make lemons.  Far from it.  There are many good and great authors out there who damn near dance around all day singing songs from Disney movies while awash in the gloriousness that is their lives.  I had to convince myself, upon pulling out of my earlier despair, that I could write with the same ability while happy as I could while miserable.

And that is where the revelation lies.  It is true that writers and psychopaths share a common bond.  I have said before on here that writing, at its best, is more of an inspired play inside the writer’s head, a found thing as King would say, as opposed to something the writer creates through sheer will.  It is far easier to see a thing and record what you see than it is to create all the detail—the sights, the sounds, the smells, etc.—that come with writing effective fiction.

Good writers, like psychopaths, must learn to detach themselves from reality.  Only for a short while, mind you, only while composing, but long enough to be regularly productive.  How can I hope to record all the various stimuli that make up a scene in my fiction—a seedy restaurant, a desert plain, a wind-blown mountaintop—unless I can free myself of the stimuli in the real world?  It’s very hard to write convincingly about a character trekking through waste deep snow when I’m sitting at my desk in my warm bed surrounded by my warm Snuggie drinking a cup of hot tea.  To do so, I have to leave all of that behind and go—actually go—into that snow.  I have to be able to feel its cold bite upon my skin and the pain as it radiates into my bones.  I have had times when I have done just that and found myself chilled despite having every article of warmth at my disposal.

I know the “narrow but distinct boundary” Jamison describes between creativity and psychotic behavior.  Mostly it is a boundary of will, of keeping yourself tethered to the world outside your story.  It’s the little things—the mundane and the repetitious—that help us find our way back from our creations rather than allowing ourselves to be swept away by them.  Psychopaths become so enamored with the act of creating that they try to impose that desire upon the world already created for them.  This is what separates us.  This is what keeps the rest of us sane—the willingness to let go of the reins for a time.  People lacking this gift see only what is really there.  Psychopaths see only what isn’t there.  But someone gifted can see both—what is there and what isn’t—with the ability to blend the two in the right proportions to create while, at the same time, live.

There is a danger to being possessing this gift.  Sure, we all know the names—Hemingway, for example—who sank too far to pull themselves back up.  There are plenty of writers and other artists, known and unknown, who have followed along that same path.  The way of avoiding such a fate is finding things—family, friends, work, damn near anything else—with a strong enough connection that it allows you to pull yourself back to reality.

Still, it’s hard to truly create something unreal if you are trapped in what is real all the time.  I can’t imagine attempting to write without being able to step out of myself for a while, without being able to cross over into another existence where the rules are not the same.  Those with the ambition of being artists of any kind should examine themselves to see if they possess this ability to step out of time and space and, more importantly, to come back again when the work is done.

If not, maybe try something else.  Tennis is fun.  Or stamp collecting.  Anything that keeps you firmly planted in the world you know, rather than the world you could know.

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About Lee Smiley

I write things. Maybe you'll read them.
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