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Saturday, October 13, 2012

That Way Madness Lies

Calm on the outside...

I remember as a young teen researching a class presentation for a science fair. We could choose any topic, and I took it upon myself to explore the connection between creativity and madness.

What kind of a topic is that for a fourteen year old? Ambitious! One might even say... crazy. But it's not a new concept by any stretch of the imagination: so many painters, writers, musicians, actors and creatives of all sorts are remembered just as much-- or more-- for their despair, manias, or erratic behaviour than they are for their artistic contributions to the world. As a prime example, I recall being particularly fascinated by the tragic figures of visual artists, and that they played a central role in this odd academic exercise: after all, they literally illustrated my point. I had glossy books of whirling, tormented paintings by the likes of Van Gogh and Hieronymus Bosch propped up beside my carefully assembled Bristol board musings to share with my classmates. I had sunk my teeth into my serious research with gusto, and I knew my stuff.


When I stood up before a room of my contemporaries and introduced my topic, I suddenly was struck hard by the absurdity of it all. Don't get me wrong-- mental illness is no joke: I didn't think it then, and I don't think it now. But there-- in that moment-- I found it hilarious, and was possessed by a fit of the giggles. As I choked back my inappropriate hilarity and forced myself to continue, I became aware of my classmates' faces: some looked amused, but there were expressions ranging anywhere from bafflement and boredom to contempt and open dislike. "They must think I'm nuts!" I thought. That revelation did not exactly help me recapture my self-control. I stumbled through the rest of presentation, and returned-- still giggling-- to my desk.

To this day, that thought bubble is never really out of my head: "They must think I'm crazy" has been a sort of underscore to my life's journey.

This morning, I was slowly getting into my day-- I'll be working on a ghost story this afternoon-- and as  I often do, I found something interesting to watch on-line as I downed a pot of black coffee. I tend to gravitate toward history and documentaries... always in search of new story and character ideas. I found this post on Open Culture dedicated to Stephen Fry:

Perfect Saturday morning brain fodder. I love Stephen Fry. And of all the video options on this page, I chose his 'Secret Life of the Manic Depressive' that he shot for the BBC in 2006.

And it is extraordinary. And it's had me thinking.

How much madness is in any artist's 'method'? I have stacks of notebooks filled with scribbled ideas for stories. If I actually followed through on every thread I conceive, I'd never leave my desk. My dreams are epic and filled with vivid imagery and complex themes. I've always been drawn to music, acting, visual art, opera, writing, dance, comedy and film... the richness of the worlds created from pure imagination washes over me like the warmth of the sun, and I simply cannot get enough.

I've always been on the outside, observing, taking it all in. Storing it up. I hoard.

I'm weird.

I'm not saying I'm on the same level of genius as those I admire, or suffer some real form of manic depression (I don't think I do-- there seem to be such wild variations and levels that it's not impossible.) But I do wonder. What is the nature behind of all this inspiration-- this literal 'breathing in' of concepts and images, words and music? It can become overwhelming. There are times I avoid my own creativity. Sometimes I go months without 'really' writing. It's almost like I'm afraid of the obsessive quality of the process. When I let it take charge, the false world I'm inventing seems almost more vibrant and 'real' than the literal world around me.

I can contain it and function, but it sometimes makes for a difficult dance. Repression of creativity is doubly dangerous: too many times in my life, I have found myself a frustrated artistic soul. Only other creatives have any clue what inner torture it is when you are working in an office, or a bank, or retail or what have you in order to merely survive. It sucks the soul out of you. People who don't 'get it' judge you by the fact that you aren't a bestseller or starring on Broadway, and assume it's because you're a talentless hack with delusions of grandeur, and not due to the innumerable vagaries of pursuing any artistic profession. This causes the frustration to take on an even darker edge. Like the faces of the kids in my classroom, I feel aware of 'them' looking at me askance.

"They must think I'm nuts."

So-- are all creative types off-kilter? Is artistic output a coping mechanism, or is creativity itself the sort of madness that can become something wonderful when it finds its proper conduit?

I haven't found any answers yet. Maybe all humans are a bit crazy. It's the degree and the manifestation that makes all the difference.


  1. Hi Ruth- Excellent blog. My blog is called Stumbling towards Ecstasy because I view my creative 'madness' as the Agony and the Ecstasy. I AM bipolar, and only discovered it a few years ago during a manic/depressive episode that had me reeling through so much creative output I hardly slept, ate, or did anything else but write and allow the characters and stories to consume me. I channeled those stories and those characters, turning out thousands of words a day, sleeping and eating and having sex with those characters in my head.
    And when I crashed, I crashed big. I call those crashes the BIG BAD DARK. Those are the dark times when Van Gogh might have taken off that ear of his, or Sylvia Plath might just have decided she just could not have gone on. The list of creative geniuses that suffer is long.
    Today, medication takes the edge off, but with it, it also takes the creative swell down to a gentle wave. I miss those many thousand word days. The highs of being so 'in' the moment, 'in' the characters, 'in' the story, that I never feel I have to leave.
    But during those times, I also missed a great deal of my Real Life as well. There are at least four years of what we call the Lost Years. Years I don't remember of my children's young lives growing up, of living different places, of things happening in our lives.
    My Agony, My Ecstasy terrify me and hold me back from being the writer I know I can be. That I have been in the past. I struggle now to find a way to write, and write well, to live with the characters without losing myself in them. Writing is never easy. For anyone. Writing without losing myself or my way again has me stumbling through to my own ecstasy. Renee Quattromani

    1. Thanks for sharing all that, Renee. We are such complex creatures-- and sometimes I see all the escapism, noise and petty distraction of society as a way to keep the questioning (sometimes scary) inner voices at bay. I'm sorry that your own battle with the Dark Side became so serious, and I'm glad you're 'back'. It does seem a sad compromise to lose the edge of such incredible creative output: do watch that Fry documentary. It's very interesting to note that most of the folks he speaks with (himself included) would not want to be any other way because of the 'high points' they've experienced.

  2. I often wonder about this, whether I might be bipolar or simply crazy, or maybe obsessive. If I am bipolar, I have yet to experience the depressive side of things. My good humour and ridiculous optimism carry me from day to day, from month to month and from year to year. At my age, I can see the finish line ahead; I know my journey is nearing its end, but still I can't slow down, write something serious, or even stop writing long enough to do some real living...