Of Creativity And Madness

creativity and madness Kandinsky

Personal suffering is sometimes cited by artists as a driving force behind their work, turning pain, anxiety, trauma, and hostility into creative expression. We profile a few notable examples in this post.

Lured by the seductive call of creativity, writers often venture beyond the safe, ordinary affairs of life to delve into the dark side of human thought and action, sometimes flirting with madness, sometimes embracing it with enthusiasm. Psychologists have explored the links between creativity and madness; the two traits seem to have a curious, symbiotic relationship. Whether the dividing line between madness and creativity is a solid, impermeable boundary or whether it slips back and forth — like ocean waves cycling on the shoreline — is a matter of conjecture.

“Everything great in the world is created by neurotics. They have composed our masterpieces, but we don’t consider what they have cost their creators in sleepless nights, and worst of all, fear of death.” —Marcel Proust

The stories that follow illuminate how some well-known writers have left imprints of madness that can be traced through their works.

Strange revelations: Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick could be the poster child for a dissertation on the links between creativity and madness. As an infant, he nearly died in a frigid Chicago apartment, suffering from malnutrition when his mother could not supply enough milk for him and his twin sister, Jane. Underweight and undernourished, Jane died during this difficult period. The family moved to California and, in grammar school, Dick gained a deep interest in science fiction but also acquired a life-long phobia. A near-drowning incident in the Russian River gave him a deep-seated fear of water (which was difficult to avoid living in the San Francisco Bay area) and was a factor in bouts of agoraphobia that troubled him for much of his life.

Dick first appeared in print with Beyond Lies the Wub, published in Planet Stories in July 1952. Over the next few years, he would go on to write a dazzling variety of imaginative stories and novels, many of which have resulted in adaptions for landmark science-fiction films (Bladerunner, Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, and others).

Dick’s occasional disturbing visions and flashes of unreality during his life reached a crescendo in 1974 when he experienced an epic series of psychological visions following recovery from a wisdom tooth extraction. Composed of bright geometric patterns, religious images, and auditory hallucinations, the experience went on for several hours. In extracts from his journal at the time, published in the nonfiction book, The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, Dick related the experience: “One night I found myself flooded with colored graphics which resembled the nonobjective paintings of Kandinsky and Klee, thousands of them one after another, so fast as to resemble ‘flash cut’ used in movie work. This went on for eight hours.”

creativity and madness Kandinsky
Composition 6 by Wassily Kandinsky (Wassily Kandinsky / Public domain)

These episodes continued for another month, leading Dick to comment, “I experienced an invasion of my mind by a transcendentally rational mind, as if I had been insane all my life and suddenly I had become sane.” After this, Dick came to believe he was immersed in a double life, partly inhabited by a Christian who had severely suffered in Rome during ancient times.

Dick went on to write several more books after 1974, including the The VALIS Trilogy, three books that provide insights and reflections into the divine intervention and cosmic revelations he felt he had personally experienced.

Concluding A Life of Philip K. Dick: The Man Who Remembered the Future, author Anthony Peake asked, “So is PKD now looking down from a location somewhere out in orthogonal time? Is he lying on his bed on a warm California day in 1975, dipping in and out of a semi-dream state and perceiving images of 2013? If so, he’s probably laughing, for these days we all seem to be living in a Philip K. Dick dream.”

Depths of depression: J.K. Rowling

Most readers familiar with J.K. Rowlings’ books know a bit about her struggle to write Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and then to find a publisher for it. But not everyone knows the depths of depression and despair she struggled to overcome before she eventually found success. When an unhappy marriage ended in 1993, she began working as a teacher to stay afloat while simultaneously setting out to complete a novel, based on an idea that had sparked her imagination in 1990. Over five years, she mapped out a series of titles with much of the actual writing taking place in cafés and hotel rooms across Edinburgh, Scotland, including The Elephant House café and the Balmoral Hotel.

It was not an easy time for Rowling, who was reduced to drawing welfare benefits with a one-year-old daughter to support and admits she contemplated suicide. As quoted in an Inc. article by Jeff Haden, Rowling said that she considered herself to be as “poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless.”

“It was only when I came to rest it hit me what a complete mess I had made of my life,” she said. “That hit me quite hard… at that point I was definitely clinically depressed.”

Nonetheless, she persisted and wrote her way out of depression with a single-mindedness that seems incredible given her circumstances. It took 12 publisher rejections before the 13th submission was accepted. In 1997, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published. J.K. Rowling has subsequently become the first author to earn $1 billion from her work and the Harry Potter books are the most popular series in publishing history.

As noted in a post by Boston Evening Therapy Associates, the Dementors — characters in who appear in Harry Potter books — were inspired by Rowlings’ feelings of depression. The Dementors were described as dark creatures that suck hope and happiness out of their surroundings. The article goes on to quote the wizard Dumbledore who comments in one of the Harry Potter films, “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, when one only remembers to turn on the light.”

Explorations into madness: Stephen King

Popular, prolific author Stephen King has explored different shades of mental illness in many (if not most) of his books. Notable examples include Mr. Mercedes, exploring anxiety disorder; The Dark Half, venturing into multiple personality disorder; Misery, paranoid schizophrenia; and The Shining, a classic tale of the perils of addiction.

As a child, King was afraid of many things: snakes, rats, spiders, the dark, closed-in places, death, and on and on. He wove these fears into his books and stories. At the time he started writing Carrie, he was teaching English in Hampden, Maine and writing at night in the tiny laundry room of a rented trailer he shared with his wife, Tabitha.

Discouraged by his writing failures, with drawers full of unpublished manuscripts, King crumpled up an early draft of Carrie and tossed it in the trash. Tabitha retrieved it and said she wanted to know what happened next. King finished the book, submitted the manuscript to Doubleday, and was astonished when they offered to publish it with a $2,500 advance. On top of this windfall, the paperback rights to Carrie sold to Signet for an impressive $400,000 (of which King netted $200,000). It was the start of a monumental writing career.

Even as his fortunes as a writer began to rise, he struggled and increasingly dealt with his demons through spirited self-medication to a degree that during his drug- and alcohol-fueled periods in the 1980s, King confesses that he can’t even remember writing many of his books. In his book On Writing, King describes his downfall: “By 1985 I had added drug addiction to my alcohol problem, yet I continued to function, as a good many substance abusers do, on a marginally competent level. I was terrified not to; by then I had no idea of how to live any other life. I hid the drugs I was taking as well as I could, out of terror — what would happen to me without dope? I had forgotten the trick of being straight.”

King further reflected, “I couldn’t ask for help. That’s not the way you did things in my family. In my family, what you did was smoke your cigarettes and dance in the Jell-O and keep yourself to yourself.”

Despite these struggles, King has gone on to write another 43 books, many of which have become films, and has won a long list of awards, including The Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation and the National Medal for the Arts from The National Endowment for the Arts.

The Collector: John Fowles

John Fowles, author of The Collector, a novel in which the protagonist acts on his obsession to kidnap and imprison a beautiful girl in his basement, stems from Fowles’ own personal obsession of an identical nature. When asked where he had gotten the idea for the story, Fowles mentioned a late ’50s newspaper story of a girl being kidnapped by a young man and forced to dig holes in his back garden clad only in her underwear. Fowles then expanded on this kidnapping fetish, saying, “It’s every man’s dream.”

Fowles burrowed deeper into his own personal erotic fantasies in his written, but unpublished notes, as documented by Eileen Warburton in her biography, John Fowles, A Life in Two Worlds. “From puberty until recently I frequently had conscious fantasies, or nocturnal day-dreams, about imprisoning women underground.” In these fantasies, the captive always fell in the love with the captor, and, Fowles continued, “. . . [the kidnapping] was always a forcing of my personality as well as my penis on the girl involved.”

The fact that these notions were something Fowles entertained for years (and perhaps considered acting upon) was mentioned in his diary, John Fowles – The Journals, Volume One, 1949 – 1965. “Once I used to ‘kidnap and imprison’ ‘generalized girls’ — archetypes. But for many years it has had to be someone I know — students.”

The Collector propelled Fowles’ career success, earning enough to allow him to write full-time. The Collector also spawned a movie and a play, apparently tapping into a vein of darkness that appealed to a broad cross-section of audiences.

Psychologists have often equated creativity as a means of purging troubling, destructive impulses from the psyche — presuming that artists suffering emotional illness are seeking deeper understanding of self, escape from conflict, and emotional balance. Perhaps this is what Fowles was attempting.

The mystery of creativity

In Creativity, the Arts, and Madness, Clinical psychologist Maureen Neilhart writes, “The creative process is a mystery. We can know about pieces of it, but we are unlikely to unravel all of it. Many questions remain unanswered. If there is a significant correlation between creative genius and mental disorders, how do we explain it? Do mood disorders lead to creativity? Is there something about wrestling with the primitive core or with our moods that facilitates the creative process? Or is there a vulnerability that accompanies creative thought? How do we explain the exceptions — those who achieve greatness and lead healthy lives? Are people with certain types of difficulties (e.g., mood disorders, substance abuse) more attracted to the creative fields than are people without such difficulties? Is there something about the creative process itself that, over time, contributes to disintegration? Or are the struggles for health the result of the cumulative effects of repeated interactions with others who lack understanding or tolerance?”

Personal suffering is sometimes cited by artists as a driving force behind their work, turning pain, anxiety, trauma, and hostility into creative expression. In an interview for Modern American Poetry, John Berryman said, “I do strongly feel that among the greatest pieces of luck for high achievement is ordeal. Certain great artists can make out without it, Titian and others, but mostly you need ordeal. My idea is this: the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business. Beethoven’s deafness, Goya’s deafness, Milton’s blindness, that kind of thing. And I think that what happens in my poetic work in the future will probably largely depend not on my sitting calmly on my ass as I think, ‘Hmm, hmm, a long poem again? Hmm. . .’ but on being knocked in the face, and thrown flat, and given cancer, and all kinds of other things short of senile dementia. At that point, I’m out, but short of that, I don’t know. I hope to be nearly crucified.”

Author Kurt Vonnegut had his own brushes with mental illness. On arriving home on leave from military training to visit his mother, he discovered that she had committed suicide on Mother’s Day. The protagonist of the novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim, suffered from extreme Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (reflecting many of Vonnegut’s traumatic prisoner-of-war experiences in World War II). Successfully dealing with paralyzing depression in the midst of his literacy success while helping his son recover from psychotic episodes, Vonnegut’s wry observation — the catch phrase repeated as a comment on death throughout Slaughterhouse-Five — seems apt: “So it goes…”

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  1. An interesting account, exploring the subject, which uses historical facts and not just supposition. It’s a hypothesis I’ve heard often and did wonder about. One thing is true, you cant write it if you haven’t experienced it and research cannot take the place of a life lived. Complete acceptance and honesty are also necessary.

  2. Matthew Fox’s book CREATIVITY also speaks to this process. I found this quote especially meaningful to me in finally completing at 82 my book JESUS GARDENS ME: “We might say that Divine intimacy, is experienced as ceativity and New Creation, which is accompanied by risk, surprise and the courage needed for both”.

  3. I was intrigued with this article and think it had some interesting information. I noticed while writing a coming of age story that when re editing i had some downsided problems and that enabled me to flesh out portions of the novel that were otherwise too generalized.

  4. Prof. Shlomo Giora Shoham has written extensively on this topic. His own traumas included being a prisoner in a Jordanian POW camp and the death of his son Giora during the Yom Kippur War. His books include:
    Art and Deviance
    Art Crime and Madness
    Creativity and Mental Illness
    Personality and Deviance
    The Insatiable Gorge
    Triumph of the Victim
    Chapters about Carlo Gesualdo, Vincent van Gogh and Antonin Artaud in
    An Existentialist Theory of the Human Spirit
    Violence of Silence

  5. Comment:the best authors and architects are usually mad; creativity is not normal. Only the insane have the stamina to go on inspite of opposition.


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