Friday, March 19, 2010

You have to be crazy to do this job.

by Barbara D'Amato



The connection between madness and creativity – “genius is akin to madness” – has been described at least anecdotally for centuries. The ancient Greeks were well aware of it. Think centuries. Think Ernest Hemingway and David Foster Wallace.

In a recent article in the New York Times Magazine “Depression’s Upside” [Feb. 25, 2010] David F. Cooper pulls together some fascinating research on the connection between depression and creativity.

Neuroscientist Nancy Andreason surveyed thirty writers from the Iowa Writers Workshop and found that eighty percent of them reported a mental history that met the criteria for depression. She believes that this is symptomatic of a cognitive style that favors creativity because in creation of art “one of the most important qualities is persistence.”

Professor of psychiatry Kay Redfield Jamison performed biographical studies of British writers and artists and concluded that successful individuals were eight times as likely to have suffered major depressive illness.

In an inventive experiment, Australian social psychologist Joe Forgas placed a variety of random trinkets near cash register. He kept records. On a grey day, he played Verdi’s Requiem; on a sunny day he played Gilbert and Sullivan. After the shoppers had exited, he asked them to recall the items. On gloomy days, they got more right. They were more attentive to reality.

The idea behind this as it relates to writing is that more negative people are more aware of their surroundings and more critical of what they write. They keep at it and are not easily satisfied. It is the relentless focus typical of negative depressive rumination.

You can easily imagine a happy person saying, “Well that’s good enough!” and submitting his rather sloppy short story.

Most of the people who say to me or my friends, “You must be crazy to do this!” are responding to finding out that we work months or years and make little money. Maybe we are just peculiarly persistent. I object to calling this “crazy” because it isn’t. I don’t even like depression termed a mental illness. We have some people in my family, both older and younger than I, who have depression problems. I prefer to call it a condition. But it is painful and nothing to belittle.

18 comments:

Sara Paretsky said...

Barb, I'm often prone to melancholy. It weighs me down so much that sometimes, especially when I'm contemplating some particularly hideous material I've wr itten, that it's hard to keep a sense of perspective and not race for the Wacker Drive bridge. If I could shed some of that melancholy I would write better, or at least more freely. By the way, pessimists apparently have a better sense of reality than optimists, but optimists live longer, according to one study I read.

Deadly Letters GTA said...

Aha! So, I'm not crazy after all... or maybe I am, but at least I'm in good company!

It makes sense that negative thinking leads to being critical and thus to revising umpteen times rather than Pollyanna "oh, this [ms] is pretty and fine... let's submit it to a publisher..."

Thanks for a great post & interesting topic.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Sara, I think you might write more freely with less melancholy, but I don't see how you could write any better.

Thanks, Deadly. My friend Hugh Holton responded to a question about how long it took him to write a book. "Six weeks," he said. The audience gasped. Then he said, "And twelve months to revise it."

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