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Creativity, Isolation and Mental Illness

Future Amber

A broken tree on Mt. Petit Jean, golden droplets of resin could become pure amber in centuries.

A broken tree on Mt. Petit Jean, golden droplets of resin could become pure amber in centuries.

Is there a connection between the arts and mental illness?

There's a common myth that artists, writers and people in creative professions suffer from mental illness. Specific famous artists like Van Gogh and writers like Sylvia Plath get brought up to support this idea. The myth may have something to do with writer's block or artists' block.

After all, do you want to risk becoming crazy just in order to become good at writing or art?

I categorized this for writers finding their voice. The myth and social effects of the myth apply to visual artists and musicians too, it's something that happens to people in the arts. On the up side, society gives an artistic license to people who are successful writers, artists and musicians -- you can be eccentric, you will get social approval for weird habits, late hours and worst of all, being alone.

There's a kernel of truth in this myth that I think has to do with the nature of the work. Writers, artists and musicians need a lot more time alone than most people. Like forest rangers, a lot of the work has to be done on your own. You need to spend quality time with your keyboard and get used to taking the time to express things to a larger audience than just the handful of people you're socializing with. You need to practice.

That's essential both for getting any good at it and for continuing to practice your creative work. Isolation scares most people. Introspection even more, since there are so many moral and ethical contradictions in society. Do you have a passionate love of religion and care about spirituality, taking in the idea that greed is wrong and evil... or do you take in the popular, constantly stressed emphasis on money and prosperity as how to measure a person's importance or your own? Do you practice humility or promote your work?

All these things need to be resolved for the individual, the canned answers from the pulpit or the editorial pages of your favorite newspaper won't do it.

We get taught to obey authority from the first year of school. Life is regimented for twelve long years, everything down to and including bodily functions requires permission and bureaucratic procedure. We stand on line and memorize things, then regurgitate what's memorized on tests. This is good preparation for life in a cubicle farm but it stifles independent thought, clear perception beyond social filters and any unexpected reaction. School demands predictable, easily stereotyped and categorized responses.

Life isn't anything like school. The fences go down, most of the rules are gone. You're on your own and have to take charge of your own life. Many people go through a terrible crisis at this point without external direction that they've come to rely on. Artistic people may have their own type of crisis on facing a harsh economic environment and surviving while practicing their work -- or with block, trying to practice and produce the work in the first place becomes more difficult than anything else.

To write well, you need to have something to say.

Sometimes the people who have something to say are perceived as crazy for it, because you also run the risk of upsetting the applecart. The status of artistic people as outside normal society also means constant rejection, to levels that people working in cubicle farms don't have to deal with personally. What happens is that you are judged by your work.

You can't take a stand without someone disagreeing with it and you will be facing opposition no matter how good you are. In fact, the better you get at writing, the more people will not only reject you but outright attack you and your work because you're making a point they do not want to become popular. So there's some inherent conflict just in the situation of becoming a writer and putting anything into print or online.

No matter who you are, garrulous people out there think you are a complete nutter, despise you for your religion, your beliefs, your ideas about society, your gender, your ethnic background, and everything you hold dear. Many of them can get vicious. They may be doing you a backhanded favor by giving you publicity -- all those fundamentalists crying out to ban Harry Potter boosted a British school satire to enormous popularity -- but it still hurts.

Those are social pressures people in other jobs don't need to face. Worse, you need to face them and understand them alone, then express them to help other people face those problems. Writers don't look away from the ugliness in society or themselves. You might be that vicious sometimes when you run into a complete loon posting dangerous ideas on the Internet that might stir someone to murder or terrorism. You might get a kick out of making fun of someone who's already being a jerk by your standards.

So there's a part of you that's something like your worst enemy, a part of you that resembles the people you despise. Not as comfortable an outlook on life as "us and them."

I think if there is any real prevalence of mental illness among creative writers and artists, the social pressures we face and the nature of the work help to create it, or if it was already there, the processes of creative writing, art and music are ways of dealing with it.

It's hard to live with knowing things other people are in denial about. Very hard to stand there and ignore blatant stupidity, or go along with it in order to get along. High school is all about conformity and peer pressure -- yet artistic people wind up drawn to express things that aren't on the menu and do things that aren't part of the crowd. Just doing anything different can set you apart in some way and the social pressure against that is enormous.

It takes years of introspection and work to overcome the effects of childhood traumas, pressures and acculturation. Kids are impressionable. The things that hurt deep then are going to still hurt in your forties, your fifties or your seventies. But to create anything is to some extent to break acculturation and take an individual view of life.

Even the most conservative writer or artist has to stand back from it all and decide that point of view, consciously become aware of the values they choose to defend. They must in effect step up to the combat zone and tackle the controversies, writers don't get the luxury of standing back to let someone else defend their ideas.

The image of artistic people as rebellious runs deep in popular perception. Calling people crazy is one way to disconfirm a rebel who questions the social order. Think about the social order in the abstract for a moment -- the people who rank high in it really don't want it questioned because any change in their rank is likely to be downward. The people who rank low in it would love to see change, because it's likely to be an improvement.

Anthropologists talk about disconfirmation -- what happens when people deny you right to your face. It can hurt far worse than isolation. They might relabel what you're doing in order to disconfirm it. You call it an introspective essay. They say you're whining and it's all adolescent angst. Or you write a cathartic, painful word picture of depression and your friends treat it as the funniest satire, quoting it and laughing.

Yes, that happened to me, and it took place at a school assembly. Worse, it was my two closest friends doing it. They honestly misinterpreted the piece. It hurt so deep they might as well have been family rejecting me, but to the audience, my reactions looked like a crazy person's. To them it was a successful comedy they enjoyed. To me it was humiliating to have my most painful feelings mocked in front of a crowd.


Is it a risk or not?

Was I crazy to go up there to get this photo on Mt. Petit Jean... or did that safety fence mean I was just enjoying a great view? I know if I paint it as a landscape, I'll leave out the fence for drama.

Was I crazy to go up there to get this photo on Mt. Petit Jean... or did that safety fence mean I was just enjoying a great view? I know if I paint it as a landscape, I'll leave out the fence for drama.

You don't have to be crazy -- but you could be seen that way just for being yourself.

I think sometimes people who write, draw, create music wind up deliberately stepping away from society's expectations, drawn by the love of process and the art itself. I think you don't need to be miserable or suffer for your art, that it's just as possible you got into your art out of sheer joy in the human process of creation. Some people get labeled artistic from the time they're small children and grow up into artistic careers with a lot of nurturing and support -- they don't associate the process with rejection and don't fear the isolation of actual creation because they're emotionally secure about their works being accepted by their loved ones.

I think that matters more to whether a writer has a happy life than whether they become a writer in the first place.

Psychology talks about social zones -- about a happy, healthy person's life having good positive relationships at all levels. Your social zones can be mapped as concentric rings around you. Each circle is progressively larger, has more people in it but is not as close, their opinions don't carry as much weight and you don't give them as much time and attention individually. Where someone belongs in your social zones can change -- old friends drop out of touch and become distant, but you'd still like to hear from them now and then. An acquaintance becomes a good friend and moves into the friendship zone, maybe even the close intimate friends zone.

Your date may just be that, a casual date, or courtship proceeds and your date becomes your significant other, moving gradually inward in depth of commitment and trust till your date becomes your mate and has an enormous impact on your life. Hopefully positive.

If you build good relationships at all those levels, life is a lot happier and you have support when you need it. Someone to commiserate on a vicious bad review or celebrate a writing contract. A good relationship in the outermost zone is just being reasonably polite and genial with casual people you just met and might never see again. I'm not saying every one of these zones gets a relationship as in, commitment and deep importance.

In fact, one of the worst problems for people who are mentally ill is a tendency to reverse the importance of these social zones, go nuts trying to please complete strangers all of the time while treating their most intimate friends and family like captive enemies.

Creative professions have unique demands on any individual. The ability to work alone and unsupervised demands independent responsibility and the skills, never taught in school, of organizing time and space for your own work. It takes the confidence to accept the rejection of people who either are genuinely uninterested or actually opposed to your work on principle, trusting that there are just as many people out there who think you're entertaining, wonderful and spot-on right about all the world's ills.

You have to act like a high status person, a leader, before you are one -- right at entry level you need the autonomy that only the highest level people in bureaucratic structures have. Yet you don't have any underlings and probably won't even if you become extremely successful. Good news, you're not responsible for their goofs and don't have to trust them to do what you intend, what happens when you sit down to write is exactly what you do and nothing else.

You have to learn to distinguish helpful critique like "It would be easier to read if you use shorter paragraphs" from personal criticism like "Only an insecure moron would think social pressure causes depression." It can be hard even when it's obvious, because that kind of personal criticism hurts. The only real defense against those social wounds is trusting that the people who love you do, that the people on your side will stick up for you, that the people who don't like you are not the ones that matter to you.

At the same time, in order to get any good at the skill, you need to be able to accept the critique as genuinely helpful and use it, even if it's inextricably mixed with the personal criticism. You can't just ignore the whole thing because those two statements might have been in the same comment and both true of that piece of writing -- if you did break the paragraphs more often, the people who agree with you will read it easier. But the flamer who wrote it was just taking any fault-finding potshot possible and did you a favor without meaning to.

Or the helpful critiquer who honestly loves your writing and agrees with you accidentally said something that really hurt for personal reasons they just didn't know about. The people in your outer zones should not know about every quirk and scar and vulnerability you have, that invites the people outside any of your zones to attack where it hurts the worst.

I don't think most writers and artists really fear being locked up and medicated if they write the wrong material. That only happens for real if you're a danger to yourself and others. But social ostracism can happen for a lot of reasons and is a much bigger, more real risk to anyone who wants to be alone and doesn't just follow the crowd. You do have to have the courage to say what you mean to say, even if that's rejected and attacked.

So that's a tough haul. Most people who shuffle papers in offices or work in factories don't need to worry about anything but quality or getting along with the people they work with. That's bad enough because office politics can be brutal, but it's not personal -- while a creative writer is always getting personal with the work. You write from your point of view.


Believe it -- you know you're good!

Cats know they're cool. Writers and artistic people need to develop that independence and trust their own judgment -- if your writing pleases you, then your readers will love it. We're sometimes our own worst critics.

Cats know they're cool. Writers and artistic people need to develop that independence and trust their own judgment -- if your writing pleases you, then your readers will love it. We're sometimes our own worst critics.

Finding your unique voice can relieve the pain or bring you joy or both. It's a good thing even when it's hard.

Finding your voice is as easy and hard as just being who you are and thinking what you do about things, everything from ethics to the language.

Becoming a writer who can both live well, have a happy life and good social life in all zones of intimacy as well as call it the way you see it in print is a hard road. Many people try it and most don't push it to the level where they could make a living on it, because it takes years to learn to do it well and years of personal growth to be able to handle the unique social pressures that go with the role of "creative writer." The job conditions are crummy or wonderful depending on you -- on what you like and expect and want in life.

If you hate being supervised and do better when you're in charge of what you're doing, that's a great indicator that you're right for self employment. If you have trouble deciding where to put your desk, either learn self management or think about getting a job instead.

Becoming a writer is about seeking attention -- but you can't be needy or it'll all be the wrong kind of attention. Taking good care of yourself and meeting your emotional needs in ways that aren't resting on the success or failure of a given piece you created is a good way to become a successful writer -- because then you can look at your failures as failed trials, yourself as a good, constantly growing and learning writer and your voice as something you are entitled to just for being alive and being yourself.

The better you express yourself, the more of who you are will come shining through to your readers.

That's all that Finding Your Unique Voice is.

No one else grew up where you did -- not exactly, not in that house. Not in that place in the schoolroom. Not with that specific relationship with your first teacher or your parents or your siblings. Your siblings had a different birth order and they went on to become very different people. The area you grew up in affected you and so did any travels. For a writer, I'd lay odds everything you read helped to shape who you are profoundly.

So there are these people way outside your time and place bringing in cultural ideas far from your place and time. Shakespeare may have pointed out important things about life that your neighbors didn't really get. Dickens has sensitized more people to the real plight of anyone poor than perhaps any other writer in history -- so you don't need to have been deprived or abused in order to care passionately about people who were and seek to help them by putting the realities of poverty into stories.

But their attitudes and ideas are out of step with everything in "mainstream culture" and most of the reading we do broadens our outlook on life. It's possible to understand how others look at life even when at first their view of things makes no sense -- and it takes a very good writer to express it the way they would if they were articulate, to give a sympathetic portrayal of every character. That's what makes for good story.

The main thing is to be aware that your personal life is personal, that your social zones are yours and no one but you has a right to decide who gets mapped where in them. What you write is mostly going to be read by people you don't know, what each of them thinks of it is personal to them. The happy thing is that sometimes what you wrote in a silly mood on a good day just because the idea seemed cool can sometimes be the one inspiring piece that helped someone you didn't know get through a rough patch in life.

So write what you care about. Write what means something to you. Tell it the best that you can and don't take any technical flaws of style or spelling personal -- those are just mechanics. The ability to express yourself well is much more than that. Something can be grammatically perfect and dull as dirt, or the raw rough draft can be readable and important before it's even polished. It'll get through to those strangers better if it's polished and edited.

Creative writing can ease the pain or bring joy into your life -- and it is possible to overcome the pain if you put in the time and work to resolve your personal problems for yourself. Write for you to do that, journals are very useful. For others, acceptance or rejection is half crafting it well and half sending it to the right market where the theme fits the slant of the publication and the topic is one the readers of that market like, then it's a matter of potluck but eventually any well written story will find a good home and some popularity.

Enjoy it. There's the key to staying sane while being a writer -- or artist, or musician. If you love doing the work itself, that shines through more than any other element, and practice will make you skilled enough to command an audience.

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