Is there anyone who hasn’t heard the saying “There’s a thin line between genius and insanity.”? Apparently it’s true – or at least, there’s a thin line between creativity and mental illness. (It doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?) I was listening to a radio piece a couple of weeks ago, and the doctor being interviewed said that artists, including writers, have a higher-than-average rate of mental illness, including things like depression and bi-polar disorder.
There’s so much in my own life that shrieks “Yes!” to this. From the time I was a child my mother characterized me as “moody” and “melodramatic”. I remember feeling bouts of dark despair and anxiety even when I was ten or eleven.
A friend of mine who has known me for many years told me once that she thought my mood swings were part of being an artist, that they went with the territory. When I was diagnosed with depression, in my late thirties, she wasn’t surprised.
Another scary fact about creative people and mental illness is that it’s probably more dangerous to be a poet than a hard-rock miner. Poets, according to another study I heard about, have the highest rate of depression, the highest rate of attempted suicides, and the highest rate of successful suicides. I write poetry. Yikes!
Okay, let’s not get all bent out of shape here. “Mental illness” is in part a social label as well as a medical one. We’re supposed to think, behave and see the world in a way that makes us fit in with others and allows us to cope with what most of us agree is reality. If we don’t, “mental” is an easy label for others to apply.
As creative people, artists and writers, we see the world differently. Inventors, scientists and mathematicians often see the world differently, too. That’s what makes it possible for us to bring into being something that has never existed before. It could be the multiverse theory, the work of Chagall or Woolf, the concept of gravity, the zipper. None of these things would have happened if someone hadn’t seen things just a little askew from the norm.
“All right,” some might say, “but there’s a big difference between inventing the zipper and writing some of the dreck that passes for literature these days.”
Yes, there is. For one thing, what’s literature and what’s not can be a matter of individual taste or cultural fashion, both of which are mutable. There’s not much to argue about with a zipper – it works, or it doesn’t. Your choice to use one can be a matter of culture or taste.
Whether a creative person is “crazy” by social standards isn’t as important as whether they can cope with life. This makes me feel a lot better about my own mental illness. As long as I’m capable of taking care of myself in practical terms, I don’t care who thinks I’m weird. I am. I’m an artist; the world I live in is just a little different than the one we all assume is normal.
“Normal” – now there’s a whole other post! The people who live in my refrigerator agree with me on this, by the way. The ones in the dishwasher don’t, but I don’t listen to them.They’re crazy.