The Curse of Creativity

Much as we think of it as a delightful quality, it is not easy to be creative. I’ve been reading up on author’s lives recently, and on the process of creative writing, and it’s notable how tortured, paranoid and emotionally complicated many writers are. Partly this is because many good writers start out disadvantaged in life. You don’t have to be abused as a child to write, but it seems to help. Well, to be fair, it seems to be isolated children who end up with the right skill set – overdeveloped imagination, extreme sensitivity, impressive observational techniques, and a generally rich and fertile inner life. That isolation may be for perfectly harmless reasons, but so many of the writers I’ve been reading about were dealing with difficult families, or marginalized by race, religion or genteel poverty. The position of outsider is a bit of a necessity for the genuine artist in later life; literature often critiques the society in which it is written, and to see that society clearly requires disengagement from it. Or an engagement that is dissatisfactory, upsetting or disempowering. There have been brilliant writers who lived completely within the celebrity culture of their times – like Truman Capote, for instance, but there was always something (like his sexuality) to make them feel apart in a disquieting way from the rest of the human race.

Or the alternative is the writer who writes directly out of the circumstances of his or her life – Scott Fitzgerald and Colette come to mind here; people who managed such peculiar and eventful lives that they could transfer them directly onto the page as they lived them. Inevitably, that takes its own special toll.

Then there’s the writer’s mind, both a magnificent asset and the enemy within. Boundless imagination sounds lovely, but it’s actually a nightmare. Most ordinary people’s minds are fitted with internal pressure valves that shut mental processes off if they become threatening, But not the writer’s mind which, after all, gains its strength from its ability to travel further and faster into the labyrinth of possibilities, to plunge the depths of sadness and rage, to inhabit all kinds of different, often disturbing situations. Since happiness has no story, writers are inevitably fixated on conflict and trouble; not for them the 80% of events that unfold normally and easily, no, they must be concerned with the sliver of life in which the unpredictable and the catastrophic occurs.

The ability to empathise and to be sensitive to the predicaments of others removes another set of essential boundaries for the writer. ‘Writers aren’t exactly people,’ Scott Fitzgerald said, ‘they’re a whole lot of people trying to be one person.’ And there’s something about messing with language that really destabilises the mind. I see this empirically with the students – the flakiest come every time from either the English department or Modern Languages (well, unless they are mathematicians, but maths at that level is considered a language anyway). Language orients us in the world, it solidifies our relationship to everything that surrounds us and constructs our sense of who we are. When we use it to create parallel universes and different mentalities or get deep into its meaning, exploring along the frontier of what has never quite been put into words before, something fundamental to sanity is being put on the line.

The very process of creativity is a sort of mental recklessness; creativity makes the brain whirr faster and faster, mimicking the patterns of manic depression. Creativity can be seen in many ways as a kind of overextension of the individual, a shifting through the mental and emotional gears into overdrive, that results in a verbal explosion of thoughts, images, fantasies, impressions, possibilities, and yet one restrained by accuracy of insight, elegance of grammar, an often depressing awareness of what life is really like (because optimists may be happier, but they are also more likely to be wrong in their life forecasts). It’s a kind of controlled psychosis, undertaken alone and without a safety net.

And then what happens to the products of this creativity? They are put onto a competitive marketplace, regarded by the bulk of the population with complete indifference or else torn to pieces by the minority who care about art. Think how hard it is for most people to accept they have made a mistake, or produced a poor piece of work, how damaging to self-esteem, how upsetting, particularly if others become aware of their failings; imagine how it would be if every office or factory produced a newsletter that circulated to the population at large damning critiques of named workers. There’d be a law against it. But writers, some of the most sensitive and unstable human beings, have to suffer public humiliation at the hands of readers/critics who are often thoughtless, prejudiced or even plain unfair. Nowadays, writers are encouraged to prepare themselves for this during any training they undertake. I vividly recall one course I took, in which the tutor had a wonderful time coming up with damning and contemptuous remarks about my writing. She thought she was hilarious, and I wondered what other educational process considered mockery and scorn as useful motivational tools.

Yet people still think of creativity as a fantastic gift, and the job of the writer as one of the most enviable professions.  There’s something about the thought of having great swathes of space and time in which to express oneself that seems to unite a number of cherished fantasies. In fact, I think that the process of creativity can be an amazing journey, and a compulsive, obsessive one, too, as the lives of some of the most contented writers, such as Colette and Agatha Christie show. But the pleasure often comes at a steep price.

On that note, I will just add that there’ll be no posts this week: I have an article to write and the deadline sort of crept up on me. Back next week, presuming I survive the process. 😉


20 thoughts on “The Curse of Creativity

  1. Here’s to survival! And to weeks off. Thanks for this insightful post, by the way. xoxoBL (*PS– I owe you an e-mail! Am looking forward to writing it, because THAT’s the easy kind of writing.)

  2. I’ve never really thought about the process of what makes a creative person creative–so this is really very fascinating. It would be hard to always be ‘turned on’ so to speak. I don’t think I could hack it–having my work picked apart–and not a critique in order to make it better but to break it down in a way that puts it all under a microscope–it’s even painful to Me (being completely outside it all) to see this sort of thing. I expect this must be the same with artists–I wonder what makes some people choose a more visual way to express themselves over writing. Very interesting post! Good luck finishing your article–see you next week! 🙂

  3. Sometimes, I wish so badly to be able to turn off my imagination, especially since it works so much faster than I’m able to write. But, well, I certainly couldn’t write without it. Thanks for this wonderfully insightful post, and good luck with your article.

  4. Pingback: Try to imagine a world in which writing is not difficult… | The Collaborative Writer

  5. Creativity can be a curse. This is such a thought-provoking and relevant post for me. My son is a brilliant writer but I’ve had to tell him that it isn’t easy exposing your craft to the world and all of the criticism that comes with it. On the other hand is is very rewarding to produce something and feel good about (at least until the critics weigh in).

  6. Fascinating. I guess I’d never really thought to pick apart the assumption that I’d always taken for granted: that artists are necessarily tortured souls (and perhaps scattered or even flaky?) and writers are, of course, artists.

  7. Brilliant post, LL! Such a lot to think about, such as the link between creativity and manic depression. And the part about writers getting lambasted in public is so spot-on as well. (Although I suppose the flip-side to that is that when writers love each other’s books and say only nice things about them then there’s a hint of insincerity there.)

    Best of luck with your article.

  8. I love this post! But I would disagree with you that happiness has no story. Happiness is just like sadness, it’s a piece of a story, and it can be a really good and interesting piece. If I were going to name the quality that is storyless it would be stasis — change is a story, but everything staying exactly the same is not.

  9. Ah, LL, I do so enjoy your thoughtfulness. I agree completely. What I do think is an important distinction to note, however, is that many people envy the life of a writer when they think of the popularity and fame of certain pop fiction cornerstones like Meyer, King, Roberts, Patterson, etc. Very few consider Cormac McCarthy, Orwell, or even Margaret Atwood as enviable (I do on some level, but many don’t). Good luck on your deadlines and thank you for this wonderful and thought provoking post.

  10. To some extent, we all have the potential for creativity. In fact, I think we are all born with it. Some have it nurtured (if only by oneself), some have it snuffed (early or late), some ignore it, some are too busy for it, some simply do not treasure it. And for some, it is air to breathe. Insightful post, LL.

  11. A great post, LL, just what I needed after a long day! I hope the article is done and dusted to your satisfaction.

  12. This was so artfully expressed, Litlove, thank you. I love the notion of “mental recklessness.” Yes, that is what it feels like. Manic, most of the time, necessary, nervy, unsettling. And then there will be the moment after finishing something, or even just finishing a few lines, and the writing sings and you feel like a balloon rising. Lighter than air, seeing everything. I guess that’s why to do it. I hope your article worked out!

  13. Very interesting to read this in the week when I’ve been reading a lovely book, Making and Connecting by David Gauntlett, Prof of Media and Communications at the University of Westminster, which celebrates creativity and its fostering by blogs and other ‘Web2’ applications as a deepening and celebration of life whose active pursuit is to be encouarged in as many people as possible. I completely agree with him. And of course I completely agree with you too! It’s the opposite ends of a wide, rich spectrum – both a spectrum of individuals and a spectrum within each of us. I certainly experience my own little bits of creativity as alternately a miracle and a curse.

  14. Bloglily – I like survival! And it will be lovely to hear from you whenever it suits you!

    Danielle – yes, isn’t that intriguing, to wonder why some people move towards visual creativity? My son hopes to design computer games when he’s older, and he says that’s the form he likes stories in. It’s sort of funny to see how the genes get developed differently in different generations. I also find it oddly painful to see a book pulled to pieces – I can’t think it’s fair to attack someone who doesn’t have the right of reply (although there was all that hoo-ha about the author who did bite back!).

    Caroline – thank you! I’m always delighted to have been helpful.

    Lilian – thank you! What a lovely comment.

    Stefanie – it went okay, thanks! Got to send it off to the editors now to get their comments, so fingers crossed.

    Emily – I know just what you mean! It’s not always easy to keep the imagination quiet when things are difficult, is it? All those helpful suggestions about the possible catastrophes ahead… thank you for the good wishes, that’s very kind.

    Kathleen – it’s always hard when you start out, isn’t it? Not that any writer finds it easy to take harsh criticism, although one gets used to expecting it, in a way. But the first sharp words for the new writer seem particularly mean. At least your son has a mum who’ll know exactly what to say to make him feel better. And I hope he gets all the breaks he deserves.

    Kinga – thank you!

    Pages of Julia – I find I’m fascinated by creativity, what it is, and what it does to the person who owns it. I’ve got a thing for author biographies at the moment and can’t leave them alone!

    Pete – thank you! I get the feeling that if you get published, it might be sensible just never to believe what gets written about it! I could live without the praise if I didn’t have to hear the censure…

    Jenny – that’s such an interesting idea about stasis. I suppose the only author I can think of who keeps everything the same is Beckett, and he is such an unusual writer. I’m trying to think of books that are stories of happiness and I can’t come up with any – there must be ones I haven’t thought of. Have you got any suggestions?

    Kimberley – it’s nice to know you’re blogging again! I wanted to put in the post, but couldn’t find it, a story I’d heard that ‘writer’ was still the job that most people in a survey wanted for themselves. But that sort of wanting is like wanting to be a super model or president or something. Hardly anyone ever gets that popular.

    Grad – I’m sure you’re right. I think it comes out in different ways. There’s a great book, whose title now escapes me, about the different processes that constitute creativity – there’s lots, like pattern recognition, synthesis, problem solving, perception, etc. We all have some of those, and it’s just what you do with them that counts, as ever!

    Doctordi – thanks! Yes, done now, or at least until it comes back from the editors…

    Melissa – that sounds so nice. Once I’ve finished something, I always feel exhausted afterwards and often tetchy, too! But I quite like the doing of it at the time, so long as I can keep the manic-ness under control!

    Jean – I’ll have to look that book up. I agree with him! But there seems to be so much, even around the writing of a blog, say, that can be disconcerting – hoping for an audience and an understanding one, worrying about quality of posts and having something worth saying, feeling in slumps and troughs. But when it works, it’s great.

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