Angst (n.) (ängkst)
1. A German word that refers to “A feeling of anxiety or apprehension often accompanied by depression.”
2. Fanfiction writers also use the word to help categorize some forms of fanfic: “Putting the characters and by extension the readers through deep emotional and possibly physical pain.”
Some people take the definition of angst a lot farther. They believe writers need to be at least a little touched by madness. Interestingly, there is a strong positive correlation between bipolar disorder (aka manic depression) and creativity. According to Frederick Goodwin and Kay Redfield Jamison, both giants in the study of bipolar disorder:
It is counterintuitive that such a destructive illness could be associated with imagination or great works of art. Yet the perceived association is a persistent cultural belief and one that is backed by data from many studies… The argument is not that manic-depressive illness and its related temperaments are essential to creative work; clearly they are not. Nor do we argue that most people who have bipolar or recurrent depressive illness are creative; they are not. The argument is, rather, that a disproportionate number of eminent writers and artists have suffered from bipolar spectrum disorders and that, under some circumstances, creativity can be facilitated by such disorders.From Michelangelo and Jackson Pollock to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley, from Kurt Cobain and Billy Corgan to Ernest Hemingway and Stephen King, depression or bipolar illness is disproportionately common in creative geniuses.
Is Angst Necessary?
Now, if bipolar disorder and depression are common in creative geniuses, and angst is a description of how people with those disorders often feel, does that mean angst is necessary to the creative process?
Looking at the psychological research…no. Interestingly, people who are creative have more in common with people who are bipolar than they do with “normal” people, but the commonalities lie not necessarily in mood disturbances, but rather in idiosyncratic thinking patterns, in enthusiasm and passion for their art, in how easily they can produce new and strange ideas. In many cases, people who are bipolar and creative are better able to express themselves creatively when they are being appropriately treated for their disorders.
Part of what makes being creative with a mental illness so difficult is the behaviors that result. Alcoholism is found in over 50% of the people with bipolar disorder. Drug abuse is also extremely high. Periods of despair can be so intense that the individual can hardly get out of bed, let alone create something. And of course the rate of suicide and suicide attempts is much higher than in creative people who aren’t also struggling with a mental illness.
The way I think of it is like this — there is an overlap between “creative” genes and “bipolar/depressive” genes. And while some people, like Kurt Cobain, feel much more creative when they’re in the manic phase of bipolar disorder, they may also be less coherent (“Smells Like Teen Spirit” lyrics, anyone?), and they also have to deal with the crash of depression (Cobain committed suicide). Research also suggests that over time depressive/bipolar illnesses gnaw away at creativity. In a study done with children , “we found a negative correlation of illness duration with…creativity ; the longer the children were sick, the less creative they were.” So overall, the illness becomes a hindrance to creativity, rather than a help.
Angst vs. Soul
An ex of mine was an amazing artist, technically. He could reproduce anything he saw, often without ever lifting the pencil. I’ve never seen someone who could draw like he could without ever needing to erase. He didn’t need to work the image over and over from rough to smooth — he just produced an immaculate image the first time.
He spoke at one point to some galleries about displaying his work, but he was turned down. One director was kind enough to give him some feedback. She told him something was “missing” from his work.
He thought it was angst. But it wasn’t. (He got to share mine, and it didn’t affect his art at all. I checked.) What he was missing was soul.
So I don’t think it’s angst that we all need to produce good stuff. It’s soul.