The purported link between creativity and madness

There is a strong social bias or prejudice in favor of believing that genius comes along with some form of psychosis. Depression, anxiety, even mania, are frequently associated with creative ability. Writers have often done little to dispel this myth; even psychologists who specialise in understanding and explaining human behavior seem to have a vested interest in maintaining this belief.

A study done in the late 80s (and reinforced by later studies on a similar theme) interviewed and followed 30 participants who had all been published writers and taught writing for at least 15 years at University of Iowa‘s writing workshop. The study indicated that 80% of these writers had some kind of affective illness. Now, the catch with studies like this (and this one in particular) is that it was conducted by one person, and none of the “evidence” was corroborated by peers. In other words, the author of the study, a psychologist, might be said to have found what she was looking for.

This is a problem for writers, this perception (reinforced by society, writers themselves, and the entire history of Western civilization going back to Plato, for crying out loud) that writing is a form of “madness,” that creativity is a gift, a divine inspiration given to us “by the gods” (thanks, Plato) and that we who write (or do any kind of creative act, really) are of necessity better at it when we’re looking for our muse at the bottom of the bottle, let’s say, or in the arms of our best friend’s wife, or some other such nonsense.

You can also take the time to make a list of all the writers you can think of who have been known to be in some way ‘crazy’ or suffering from some kind of affective disorder (to put it in the words of psychologists). I think you’ll find the list is long, indicating that writing is something we associate with various forms of mental illness. It’s entirely possible that since writing is a form of catharsis, the predominant writing that holds our collective attention is mostly that which has been shaped by difficulty, tragedy, or loss.

Click here for an excellent online resource for further research into this perplexing topic.

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