28 January 2012

More on creativity and mental illness: Parallel Motions

"The reason creativity and craziness go together is that if you're just plain crazy without being able to sing or dance or write good poems, no one is going to want to have babies with you." - (the admirably and authoritatively sane) Mark Vonnegut

Now that I've climbed up on this horse, why not ride a little farther, since I haven't yet talked myself out of this as a potentially fruitful area of inquiry? After having talked about the ways in which mental illness interferes with creative efforts, and made clear that I don't support the classic romantic connection between madness and creativity, I want to draw out some of the other, more tentative and fragile connections I find there. 

For as long as anyone can remember, I was a pretty weird but also smart- and creative-seeming kid, and this might have mitigated some of the surprise when it turned out I was also crazy. My mother began saying things like, "I guess that's the thing, when you're really creative . . . ," as if my illness were only further proof of my exceptionality. I squirmed under this proud pity, but when I was being lax with myself I could let it seem like a slightly less dark corner of that darkness.

Though all this was, of course, a major burden on my family, it might have also been something of a relief. Until 7th grade I'd been a star student, but once I got to middle school a combination of rebellious awakening (what, precisely, was the point of all this bureaucratic ritual around me?) and incipient depression sunk my grades to the point that I was at risk of being kicked out of my competitive-admission magnet school. (I am incredulous at and a little proud of my 12-year-old self to recall that during a parent-teacher conference it was revealed that I'd submitted zero of the five geography assignments given so far that quarter; the teacher, who seemed to hate me for other reasons than my lack of initiative, was later fired under circumstances surrounding his penchant for the blonder and bubblier of my cohort.) Mental illness might have provided something of an explanation, an excuse for the past few years of decline -- and a promise that, if treated, I'd return to my unproblematically exceptional previous performance.

It was probably a few years before I had enough distance to consider at length what my family was going through at this time. Lately I've wondered about another possible factor in their conceptualization of my illness. I have a girlfriend now, which my family did not know was within the realm of possibility for me until a couple of years ago. They've welcomed her with an effusiveness that suggests a little more may be at work than delight in Heather's highly family-pleasing character. The other week on the phone with my grandmother, after some polite chat about what Heather was up to, she broke out with: "I'm just so glad you're happy now."

Now? Now that I had come out and into my true self, I suppose she meant. I had never actually framed the matter as a "coming out," never indicated that this had been a matter of much inner struggle for me (it was and wasn't, but not due to any kind of self-repression). But this is one of the narratives at work around us, and it might well present itself as a comforting explanation for why one's granddaughter was so miserable for all those years.

Sadly for narrative convenience, my mental illness surely did not stem from my being creative or being queer (though the latter factor might well have added to the general feeling of pressure under which my first break occurred). But it has informed my art, not so much as cause or content but as process. The two things can move in similar ways.

Metaphor is itself a kind of paranoia; poetry, like psychosis, depends on seeing things as they are not. A piece of praise that sticks with me is a comment that I seemed to "see more than anyone else." (The capacity for paying attention makes up about 90% of my talent in any area, I suppose; it's not much, but it can do a little more than one might think.) In a paranoid state the mind runs its fingers more and more rapidly along threads of connection between all things (perhaps half-realizing that it is weaving these very threads with the other hand, and perhaps not at all), enwrapping the world in an ever wider and more elaborate net. Similarly, when things are going well as I write or compose in my head or plot out an essay it is among life's highest pleasures to feel the successive sparks of connection between ideas; I feel maximally powerful drawing so many things within my grasp, alive with the sense that I am doing the thing that I was designed to do – as a cheetah must feel when it runs, a hawk as it enters its swift controlled fall toward its prey.

Accordingly, the first stages of agitation can feel almost virtuous themselves in their similarity to this blessedly productive state. The hyperawareness of anxiety sometimes brings along a sense that the world is burgeoning with barely-contained meaning, and every so often it does produce some useful flash: an apt image, a slightly bitter bit of aphorism. Usually, however, this branching of thought turns in on itself before reaching the desired destination. Consciousness begins instead devouring data on the body and its accelerating heart rate, the twitch developing in one eyelid, the nausea puddling in the gut, and the fraught border where the self meets a judgmental world. Past this point, the best that can be hoped for is to eventually collapse into an exhausted calm; the promised breakthrough is lost for good.

Depression does something else, which it can do in tandem with these other forces or alone. It saps the will to such an extent that it can, in some middle state between normalcy and incapacitation, actually provide a sense of focus on those few things that seem marginally non-useless. When things are going easily in a superficial way, the sense of urgency needed to undertake creative projects fades. If one is happy cooking delicious meals, watching movies, having drinks with friends, why not bask in complacency for a while? In a steady mood I can go days or weeks without the question of what I am here to do posing more than a minor itch at the back of my skull.

In a depressed state, however, art becomes one of the few things of worth in the world and one of the only ladders up toward the light. When making art is a way to feel better (and not because it helps "work through" my feelings, but rather because it dissolves the self and feelings in its own process), one is compelled more strongly toward it.

If my work ethic were stronger to begin with, these prompts of illness would lose their authority, I think. As it is, I try to wring what I can from them without losing sight of the inevitable point where they stop being of assistance, without forgetting that they are not the only spurs that can induce me to work seriously, but only the most painful. Which is not the same thing at all, as it turns out. 

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