Writing, Creativity, Suffering

Somehow I hadn’t read Kaye Gibbons’ 2005 novel, Charms for the Easy Life, until recently. It’s a delight to open a book and, within a few pages, realize it’s going to be a good read. The novel follows the life of a girlchild raised within a circle of intensely vibrant women. Each character is so memorable that the plot almost seems secondary.

I often turn to the inside of a book’s back cover to look at the author’s photo. That’s what I did several times recently while reading Tiffany McDaniel’s gorgeously written Summer That Melted Everything and again while reading Brian Broome’s powerfully unique memoir Punch Me Up To The Gods. Somehow it helps to see the author is an actual person inhabiting a mortal body. For me it increases the magic of words they simmer into meaning.

My library copy didn’t show Kaye Gibbon’s photo, so I casually clicked over to the interwebs. There I saw an array of images that moved from a charmingly innocent author photo to a devastating booking photo. I was gutted to learn that Ms. Gibbon suffered a traumatic childhood as well as mental health difficulties, with concomitant substance issues. The chapters I read afterwards were imbued with more meaning in light of her struggles.

It brought to mind the challenges many of my writer, artist, and musician friends have endured. And some of my challenges as well.

What is it about creative pursuits and suffering?

A few years ago I wrote an article about how creative gifts in young people are often labeled as defiance, dyslexia, and other “disorders.” I quoted Lynne Azpeitia and Mary Rocamora’s piece, “Misdiagnosis of the Gifted,” in which they explain gifted, talented, and creative people “… exhibit greater intensity and increased levels of emotional, imaginational, intellectual, sensual and psychomotor excitability and that this is a normal pattern of development.” These attributes, however, are often misunderstood by teachers, parents, and therapists as mental health disorders. Young people may be subjected to all sorts of interventions in hopes of normalizing what are essentially symptoms of an exceptional individual.

Is there a link between creative professions and conditions like anxiety, depression, and compulsions? Some research seems to indicate that’s the case.  

One study followed participants in the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop. For ten years researchers tracked 30 participants from the program along with 30 people matched in age and IQ who didn’t work in creative fields. Close to 30 percent of the control group reported some form of mental illness. In contrast, 80 percent of the writers suffered from some form of mental illness. This is intriguing, but such a small study can’t be seen as definitive.

A large-scale Swedish study followed 1.2 million people and their relatives. The research was so extensive that it incorporated much of the Swedish population. It concluded that a higher prevalence of people with bipolar disorder were working in creative fields. Again, there were limitations to the study. In large part that had to do with how the data was collected. Researchers compared medical records to occupations, deciding, for example that people working as accountants and auditors worked in “uncreative” fields while a broad range of people were assumed to be creative if they worked as university instructors, visual artists, photographers, designers, performing artists, composers, musicians, or authors. Using expanded criteria, the study found one creative field most closely associated with mental health issues — authors. The study’s abstract notes, “being an author was specifically associated with increased likelihood of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and suicide.” 

Then there’s James C. Kaufman’s analysis, “The Sylvia Plath Effect: Mental Illness in Eminent Creative Writers” published in The Journal of Creative Behavior. He discussed a study of 1,629 writers which found female poets were significantly more likely to experience mental illness than female fiction writers or male writers of any genre. Another study he included looked at 520 eminent women. They were poets, fiction as well as nonfiction writers, visual artists, actresses, and politicians. (Politicians?) It was found that poets were most likely to experience mental illness.  

But Keith Sawyer’s book, Explaining Creativity, disputes many of these findings. Dr. Sawyer asserts that there is no link between creativity and mental illness. As he notes in a blog post,  

If you’re a creative person, the good news is that there is lots of research showing that creativity is connected to normal mental functioning and elevated mental health. Much of creativity involves working with existing conventions and languages; you can’t make up your own separate universe. Creative success requires networking and interacting with support networks, and this requires social skill and political savvy. And creativity is mostly conscious hard work, not a sudden moment of insight; getting the work done takes a highly effective person. Many psychologists have demonstrated that when people engage in creative work, they attain a state of peak experience, sometimes called “flow,” that represents the pinnacle of effective human performance. Creativity is related to higher-than-average mental health–just the opposite of our belief in a connection between creativity and mental illness.

I’m convinced we have to look at the myriad ways creativity is suppressed in our culture, starting in early childhood. Time spent in free play has declined precipitously, replaced by structured, supervised activities which supplant a child’s natural curiosity-driven, inventive, and ever-fluid play. Young people have less time and freedom to play with loose parts — the sticks, dirt, water, pinecones, leaves, logs, flowers, and rocks that have inspired children’s imaginations for eons. Even in toddlerhood, intrinsic motivation can be diminished by external motivators like rewards and praise. Despite the best efforts of caring educators, schools have been severely hampered by structural racism, by assignments that emphasize narrow thinking, and by test-laden curricula. Even the education of gifted children is seriously compromised. We seem to forget that differences and eccentricities are often how our species flourishes.

Creativity is typically seen as the nearly exclusive province of the artistic few, yet we demonstrate creativity all the time as we riff on recipes, interact playfully, solve problems, collaborate on projects, tell our stories, forge new relationships, and grow from past mistakes. Creativity is not a rare gift, but a characteristic human trait. It’s so characteristic that most young children are, according to some scientists, creative geniuses.

Back in the late sixties, NASA was looking for a way to select for the most creative scientists and engineers. George Land and Beth Jarman created a creativity test to identify those who were best able to come up with new and innovative ways to solve problems. It worked remarkably well. Land and Jarman, as they explain in Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today, used the same basic test on 1,600 three-to-five year old children enrolled in Head Start. They were shocked to discover a full 98 percent of children age five and under tested at genius level. They managed to get funding to test these children over time. Dishearteningly, only 30 percent of 10-year-olds scored at the creative genius level. That number dropped to 12 percent at 15 years of age. They expanded the scope of their research, giving the test to 280,000 adults with an average age of 31. Only two percent were, according to the results, creative geniuses.

George Land attributes the slide in creativity to schooling. When it comes to creativity, we use two forms of mental processes. Convergent thinking is necessary for judging and critiquing ideas, in order to refine and improve them. This is a fully conscious process. Divergent thinking is more freeform and imaginative, resulting in innovative ideas that may need refining. This process is more like daydreaming. Land suggests many school assignments require children to use both processes at once, which is nearly impossible, resulting in predominantly convergent thinking. We are taught, unintentionally, to turn off our creativity. Now that is painful. In my view, creativity is the essence of who we are. If anything, it isn’t connected to pain, but to healing.

I’m glad to turn to poets for their perspectives on writing, creativity, and pain.

“Poems have to make our lives clear. Poems have to make our lives real on the page. And nobody’s living an easy life. Nobody’s living a life that is anything other than complex. And there are things about our lives that TV’s not going to give us, that movies, even, are not going to give us. And poems are where I go for that. That’s where I go for the complexity, the thing in us that we don’t really understand.”  ~Jericho Brown (from On Being interview)      

“There’s a reason poets often say, ‘Poetry saved my life,’ for often the blank page is the only one listening to the soul’s suffering, the only one registering the story completely, the only one receiving all softly and without condemnation.” ~Clarissa Pinkola Estes    

“When I began to listen to poetry, it’s when I began to listen to the stones, and I began to listen to what the clouds had to say, and I began to listen to other. And I think, most importantly for all of us, then you begin to learn to listen to the soul, the soul of yourself in here, which is also the soul of everyone else.” ~Joy Harjo

9 thoughts on “Writing, Creativity, Suffering

  1. Thank you ever so much for writing, researching, and sharing this wonderful piece. Not only is it beautifully structured and informative, it powerfully resonates with me on an intimate, personal level. As a writer and dancer and single mother, I struggle daily with the savage, lifelong demons of my “inner voice” and trying to balance a connected, grounded life for my children. I have felt myself to be somehow “other” since my first memory; your essay provides, to this rather solitary reader, a remarkable and wonderfully communal context.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve often thought that a lot of writing must come from a place of pain of some sort. It is, after all, a compulsion, a need as strong as hunger. It saddens me that there seems to be a compulsion to bracket the creative with definitions and labels, to categorise them as some sort of defective because they are not
    ‘normal’. Science does not seem to have grasped yet that there is no Normal, no one typical that all humans should conform to. Coming from a family of creatives, raging eccentrics, neuro non-typicals and non-conformists, I reject their boxes, labels, definitions and patronising assumptions that I am Less because I am not Same.
    Oh dear. That was definitely ranty, but it hit a nerve.
    And I too love Charms for the Easy Life. The description of Charlie Kate’s death still makes me cry. Cover the mirrors, but carry on with the laundry…. Feel the pain, but do the work anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

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