Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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1515 words
SHJ Issue 16
Spring 2017

Creative Minds and Mental States

by Walter Cummins

In our house we often cite the late psychologist Albert Ellis, who is reported to have said, “Everybody is fucking crazy.” That seems right to us. But the other night I read a claim that people of higher intelligence, especially creative types, are more prone to mental disturbances than the average person. I’ve encountered similar studies over the years. Could it be that creatives are even fucking crazier?

It’s difficult for me to judge because, by far, most of the people I associate with and email daily are writers—from those I spent time with when getting my own MFA, to those I edit, those I write to, those who are close friends, and those who are my MFA students. These writers range from eager novices to winners of prizes and Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts grants. Their books overflow my shelves. Beyond writers I know well are those I’ve met briefly through an introduction or a brief exchange, major names in the literary world. I suppose I’m one or two degrees of separation from a good percentage of the planet’s authors. Other than a few nervous tics, a tendency to obsess over rejections, and occasional evenings when they’re in their cups, writers all seem pretty normal to me, no different from the average person.

But what do I know? I recall sitting at a dining-hall table with a group of MFA colleagues and students with everyone discussing their medications for depression and anxiety. Wellbutrin seemed to be a favorite for the age group because it doesn’t suppress the libido. Then again, millions of non-writers swallow SSRIs every morning. They’re probably not as prone to sharing.

The study I read last night claimed a greater prevalence of bipolar disorders for the creative. It may have been referring, among others, to research by Nancy Andreasen at the University of Iowa. When I was there, she held a position as an assistant professor of English specializing in John Donne. But she thought better and went on to earn a medical degree and eventually hold a chair of psychiatry, still at Iowa. Taking advantage of her dual background, she tested various faculty members in the MFA writing program and concluded bipolarity and depression were rife among them. She probably would have come to the same conclusion if she had extended her subjects to MFA students at the time, many of whom would become well-known writers and writing teachers themselves.

Here’s one of her conclusions:

Many personality characteristics of creative people...make them more vulnerable, including openness to new experiences, a tolerance for ambiguity, and an approach to life and the world that is relatively free of preconceptions. This flexibility permits them to perceive things in a fresh and novel way, which is an important basis for creativity. But it also means that their inner world is complex, ambiguous, and filled with shades of gray rather than black and white. It is a world filled with many questions and few easy answers. While less creative people can quickly respond to situations based on what they have been told by people in authority—parents, teachers, pastors, rabbis, or priests—the creative person lives in a more fluid and nebulous world. He or she may have to confront criticism or rejection for being too questioning, or too unconventional. Such traits can lead to feelings of depression or social alienation. A highly original person may seem odd or strange to others. Too much openness means living on the edge. Sometimes the person may drop over the edge...into depression, mania, or perhaps schizophrenia.[1]

Note that Andreasen, to her surprise, found no schizophrenia among her writer subjects.

On a number of occasions that had nothing to do with creativity, I’ve visited mental wards and witnessed very bizarre behaviors. I’ve even written about them in short stories. To my knowledge, none of those patients were writers; but I do know about Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, and others who went off the deep end. Was that because they wrote or because of malfunctioning synapses? Were the patients I saw suppressed creatives who had dropped over the edge?

After many conversations, exchanges, and interactions with writers, even years in their company, I’m still amazed when reading their work—fiction, poetry, or nonfiction—and trying to reconcile the products of their imagination with the person who chatted about a movie or music or politics or a trivial or serious personal issue, from a crashed laptop to a broken marriage. They speak like other people, though with a somewhat larger vocabulary and more wit. But on the page they reveal a different identity, often a magical transformation into something worthy of wonder. They exist as the person across the table and as the writer who expresses the complexity and ambiguity of his or her inner world.

While bipolar may be an excessive term for the great majority of the writers I know, bifurcated minds may serve as a general explanation of how writers differ from the typical person. Although I’ve asked a few other writers—who concur—and a few non-writers about my premise, I’m afraid I’ll have to rely on myself as a research subject, the only stream of consciousness I really know.

I suppose a certain degree of bifurcation takes place in all human minds between what people do and say on the surface of their lives and what goes on in the monologues of their thoughts—daydreams, dreams, replays, what could have been, what shouldn’t have been, all those running commentaries that are difficult to turn off but can be put on pause through absorption in a game or film or TV show. Yet when the games and shows have ended, in the darkness of night, the head on the pillow is probably teeming with an inner reality. If that reality is painful, some resort to substances, from the soporific to the mind-altering.

The bifurcation of the writer’s mind—while often like that of all people—morphs into a different realm through an outlet into an alternative reality: fiction or poem or drama or essay, a distinct actuality transformed from the confines of the brain to objectification on a page or a screen. It becomes a public statement available to anyone who chooses to pick it up or watch it.

The written piece may be very autobiographical, especially to anyone who knows the author. Yet even though the root information may be factual, words and rhythms and strategies of presentation have transformed what may have happened into something new and different. The result is not a report but much more an enhancement and interpretation. And even when the world written about is far from that of the writer in place or time or circumstance, the piece is still existentially autobiographical because it is the product of the authorial mind revealing the imperatives of that mind.

While the ongoing concerns and narratives of the typical mind are free flowing and unshaped, the writer’s mind is often composing—seeking the right words and organization and structure to turn the raw material into some form of literature.

There’s a platitude writers share when one experiences an unpleasantness, whether it be lost luggage or a failed marriage: Well, it’s something to write about. And it is. In fact, just about everything, all that happens or is witnessed or is felt is material. Finding the outlet and refining the delivery are what distinguishes the writer’s mind from that of the great majority.

For some people—say teenagers after a devastating romance—what they call poetry serves as an outlet for their misery. And it isn’t only adolescents. Once when I was shopping for a small appliance at Sears, the salesman sensed something about me, perhaps the gray beard, and asked if I taught literature. When I admitted that I did, he reached into a wallet and pulled out a sheet of yellowed paper folded so many times it was about to split apart. He asked me to read a poem he had written about a woman who had broken his heart. I did, stifling my inclination to suggest revised lines, and muttered something complimentary, though useless to assuage his suffering.

Still, writing as an emotional outlet is different from writing to produce what might be considered a form of art, with awareness of the need for craft and revision, an absorption into technique that overpowers the initial raw emotion that led to the need to express in the first place. The Sears salesman didn’t want advice on making a better poem. He wanted psychic relief.

Of course, preoccupation with the dynamics of craft is another kind of release and relief. It allows an objectification of what might have been a source of tears and sleepless nights. Or just a need to lose oneself in the shaping of words, the making of another reality.

If nothing else, writing is a harmless alternative to a lethal weapon in manifesting our fucking craziness.


[1. The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius. Nancy C. Andreasen. Plume, 2006.]

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury