Balancing Creativity and Mental Illness


Where do writers get their ideas? Some say they spring from fevered minds. Those folks may have a point. There’s now scientific support for that view. From NewsMax:

Nancy Andreasen, a psychiatrist at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, studied writers associated with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and found that 80 percent suffered from depression, mania, or hypomania — compared to only 30 percent of non-writers.

Creative people tend to have adventuresome personalities and are likely to take risks. The high rate of mental illness in highly creative people could also be explained by a genetic predisposition to both creativity and madness.

Creativity involves combining new ideas in ways others have not considered. Sometimes when a person’s ideas seem too far off the norm, he or she doesn’t make sense and may seem mentally ill.

Hmm. A few names come to mind. Philip K. Dick. Robert E. Howard. Sylvia Plath. Troubled individuals all. And all talented writers.

But once again, science is just now discovering what astute observers have known for centuries. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Theseus scoops Dr. Andreasen by some 400 years:

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Queen Hippolyta agrees with Theseus, adding that the “strange and admirable” often thrives within the grey and shifting border between madness and craft. I’d add that imagination is just part of what makes all art possible; it’s a skill — something that can be learned and honed — to make “airy nothing” into something concrete the reader can experience.

10 thoughts on “Balancing Creativity and Mental Illness”

  1. Nice article.When I saw the heading it was ‘Edgar Allan Poe’ who first came into my mind!
    But I have read about some scientists and entrepreneurs alike who often seem to be placed in that “shifting border”,’who thrives within the grey’.And that makes me think that basically everyone is an artist, and every work in some way is a deep form of art.


    1. r_prab,

      Yes, Poe would certainly qualify. And I agree with you that we all drift along somewhere within that grey area.

      The trick is to keep your eyes open and strive to describe what you see from your particular vantage point. That’s what makes for writing people want to read and enjoy.


  2. Interesting post, Mike. Enjoyed it. Theseus had it right, I think. I spent twenty years as a professional artist and we agreed one had to be crazy to be an artist. When I took up writing full time, my fellow writers said one had to be crazy to be a writer. I’m thinking the evidence is in and the truth needs posting: one has to be crazy to be human.

    Liked by 1 person

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