Sun or shade
feel or know
safe or strayed
stall or flow
Thought or whim
drought or rain
sink or swim
heart or brain
Stop or start
bound or free
light or dark
I have a lot of friends who are creative – writers, musicians, singers, woodworkers, knitters, and other craftspeople. I also have a lot of friends who have assorted mental or emotional disorders – depression, bipolar, PTSD, OCD, autism spectrum disorders, and probably many more that I don’t know about. In many cases, the two categories overlap.
Common wisdom holds that there is a link between creativity and madness. Look at Van Gogh, for example. People have spent years debating what specific disorder he may have had, but nearly everyone agrees that he had something. The question is, would he have been the great artist without the mental or emotional disorder? Or, perhaps, would he have been an even greater artist if his brain functioned in a more typical matter? Science so far has given us no answers.
Many creative people realize that their everyday functioning is impaired, but they are reluctant to seek treatment for it. They fear that tampering with their brain or thought processes will somehow inhibit their creativity – make them less than they were in some fundamental way. When you start tampering with brain chemistry, who knows what will happen?
It’s a valid concern.
Throughout my life, my brain has been all that I have, or nearly so. My intelligence and creativity were the things I was most proud of. How could I risk losing those simply because I was eternally miserable? The question seems absurd now.
Eventually I decided that I had plenty of brain cells to spare, and that if taking Prozac took away a few of them or lessened their ability, I could live with that. (Just in case, I took up pursuits that are supposed to strengthen the brain – math puzzles in addition to word puzzles, music in addition to writing. Not everything I tried was a success, but I hope they stretch my brain muscles.)
My experience with that first psychotropic med convinced me that Better Living Through Chemistry is not just a chemical company’s slogan. It turns out that – surprise, surprise – thinking more clearly and feeling more well-adjusted actually empower one’s creativity. My output changed from poems full of young adult angst to creative nonfiction, personal essays, and the occasional short story. I now make my living doing freelance writing and editing – an unstructured process that I couldn’t have made a go of before having my mood disorder treated. The ability to concentrate – to focus – is what enables me to sustain a creative effort.
So to all those people out there who wonder if they are sabotaging themselves and their creative impulses by seeking treatment, I say go for it! You have nothing to lose but your immobility. You have everything to gain – the ability to create, to express yourself and do it clearly, and the possibility to create something truly wonderful.
Sylvia Plath was a poetic genius. But she could have given so much more of her talent and vision to the world if she had not killed herself. Perhaps her poetry, had she been treated for her mood disorder, would not have been as searing and powerful. The point is, we will never know. Would she have become more ordinary, or more extraordinary? Dying young obviates the answer.
I believe – for me – that psychological treatment, appropriate medication, and more stable moods have expanded my creative process. And I try to prove it every week when I post in this and my other blog. Whether I succeed is for you to determine.
Have I lost a step? Maybe. But two forward and one back beats the hell out of one forward and two back.