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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Angst, Mental Illness, and Creativity

Everyone talks about angst-ridden creative people, and I've had several readers ask me if angst is in fact a necessary ingredient for creativity. Since angst means different things to different people, I decided the best place to start was the dictionary:

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.”

Mental Illness

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.

Dr. Carolyn Kaufman is a clinical psychologist and professor residing in Columbus, Ohio. A published writer, she runs Archetype Writing: Psychology for Fiction Writers and an associated blog. She is often quoted by the media as an expert resource. E-mail Dr. Kaufman at her querytracker email address (at right) if you have psychology/writing questions -- she may answer them in a future QT blog post!


Amanda Bonilla said...

This was an AWESOME post! Since anything artistic flows right from the emotional fount, the labeling of any creative profession can fall under the terms of angst-ridden, or broody or even strange. Let's face it, most of us are pretty much shut-ins while we're writing and that can seem a little disturbing to our friends and family that aren't connecting with the swirl of emotions that we have to tag to so many different characters that are having dramatic struggles in our minds.

The range of topics on this blog are so wonderful and the writers are diverse and dedicated. Thanks so much for all of your hard work and keep up the good work!

Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...

Loved this. A touch of madness, huh? *wink*

Jen said...

Hi! Greatly enjoyed this one. I've been treated for depression for years, and though I'm pretty cheerful most of the time, I'll probably be taking meds forever. Many of my writer friends have one diagnosis or another following us around. Maybe science will sort out why this is so. Personally, I believe that the genes for various stripes of mental illness probably tend to come with the genes for high intelligence and high creativity. I might also add low bullsh*t tolerance to that list because artists make lousy slaves. I imagine an inherent inability to "go with the flow" can be pretty hard to deal with in some societies, both by those with the low bullsh*t tolerance and those around them.

However: All human beings are creative. It's our nature. All human beings have Issues (to be alive is to have problems). We can choose to not be defined by those problems (or diagnoses!) and just be what we are. I haven't yet met a person who found creativity to be a negative thing. We all need to make stuff, and we can choose to make good stuff (art) versus bad stuff (war, chaos, abuse, misery, etc.)

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Great post.

I just want to add that if you're ever doing karaoke and you need a good song, it doesn't get any better than Smells Like Teen Spirit. ;)

M. Dunham said...

Loved the topic. Thank you for writing about this.

Katie Salidas said...

"Interestingly, people who are creative have more in common with people who are bipolar than they do with “normal” people."

Interesting, distrurbing, and yet, I have to agree. Kind of scary too.

Tess said...

Interesting thoughts here. And, I tend to agree with your conclusion. Whenever any of my non writing friends ask me what I mean when I say 'voice', I tell them that it essentially means, 'soul'. It is depth, connection, realism and soul.

Great post!

Elana Johnson said...

Archy, your soul amazes me. What at fantastic post! :)

Stina said...

So if vampires and zombies have no souls, does that mean they can't be creative? Sorry, couldn't resist that. :)

Great post, Carolyn.

David said...

Quibble: The pronunciation shown is the Anglicized one. It drives me bats when I hear it. Why, I get all angsty! The original, German pronunciation is ahngst, and I wish people would use that one.

Gretchen said...

There's an amazing book on this subject: Touched with Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison. I highly recommend it.

Anonymous said...

From the outside looking in writers can be "angst" ridden, but really we just think too much. We go from reality to imagination in a few seconds flat. Can make a person odd. I know it's a joke that most writers had less than stellar childhoods, but sadly in today's age who hasn't?

The true question does my anxiety feed into my creativity? Sometimes. I can find calm when I write. I can do the same by stealing my kids coloring book and spending a few moments coloring outside the lines. *shrug* But I think a healthy writer is more creative. You know, ones with a social life that doesn't include imaginary people. Having a life, I can say for certain, feeds my writing well.

Now, there should be a study on writers with longevity and taking a look at their social life. Do they non-writing friends? Are they married? Do they have children? Do they leave the house and not just for food? That would be just as interesting.

Suzette Saxton said...

"That which doesn't kill us, makes us better writers." ;)

Stilton Jarlsberg said...

I think the angst comes from seeing the world differently than others do, and writing becomes a natural extension of our attempts to explain this worldview to others and (especially) ourselves.

Additionally, if we fail to resonate with the "logic" of the world around us, we might be more motivated to create worlds (in literature) which behave the way we think they should.

Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...

LOL, Stina!

Danyelle L. said...

Great post!

Amazing, but makes sense when you think about it. Maybe because artists can be very . . . intense about a lot of things?

Anonymous said...

Great post Carolyn. I love your comments about art requiring soul and not necessary Angst. The Artists Way discusses this topic a lot as do some other books. Nicely done!!!

Interestingly, highly intelligent people, like creative people, "appear" to have a lot in common with bi-polars and others...I think it has a lot to do with the emotional aspects of both creativity and giftedness...the intensity naturally inherent in all of these things.

Thanks for a terrific post - as always!!!

Annie Louden said...

Awesome, post, but it made me feel down. Probably because I've barely done any writing this week. I think I'm feeling anxious and apprehensive about how quick and easy my writing goals are to accomplish in my mind, yet it takes physically writing to get them done.
I'm feeling angst! Or ahngst.

Leanne said...

Interesting posts. I am an artist/musician/huge literature fan (particularly Stephen King) so you could say my passions are in the arts. I've always wondered whether there was a connection between these abilities and the fact that I have Borderline Personality Disorder (closely related to Bipolar)? It's a bit like almost being able to connect with an extra sense. But like all things there has to be balance which is I guess is where the depression and negativity comes into it....Any thoughts?