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A Horrible Book on Writing

Recently, I started reading Dennis Palumbo's Writing from the Inside Out: Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within. The back of the book says Palumbo is a licensed psychotherapist, but I sure wouldn't want him as my therapist.

First he misinterprets psychological data, and then he states -- across the board -- that years of research is wrong, just because he doesn't like what it says. As far as I was concerned at that point, the book wasn't worth the paper it was printed on.

My students sometimes do this. They write compare and contrast papers and conclude them with "I think this research is better/more accurate/more correct than that research" because they like (or understand) one source better than another. You can't do that, not if it's real research.
You can disagree with the researchers' interpretations, and you can disagree with their approach to doing the research, but you can't disagree with rigorous mathematical results. The equivalent would be saying you think the sky would be much prettier if it were sunflower yellow, so you disagree that it's blue. It's still blue, and you just look like an idiot. (Frankly, I think it's sad that students are still doing this at the college level, but I find it downright disgusting that someone who represents himself as a professional in my field would make the same mistake.)

So what is Palumbo disagreeing with?

He states that "it's in fashion again--the notion that the creative impulse, with its accompanying emotional difficulties, is merely the product of a psychological disorder. The current favorite diagnosis for artists, particularly writers, is bipolar disorder--a condition that used to be called manic depression. The most recent book to make this argument was the ifnluential Touched By Fire by Kay Jamison."

But Jamison herself says IN Touched by Fire that "the main purpose of this book is to make a literary, biographical, and scientific argument for a compelling association, not to say actual overlap, between the two temperaments -- the artistic and the manic depressive -- and their relationship to the rhythms and cycles, or temperament..." In other words, she is going to compare creative processes to the processes of bipolar illness - they may or may not actually overlap. In the definitive tome on manic depression, a book Jamison is also half responsible for (Manic Depressive Illness: Bipolar Disorders and Recurrent Depression, 2nd ed.), she states, "the perceived association [between bipolar disorder and creativity] is a persistent cultural belief and one that is backed by data from many studies. All of these studies are limited by their methods, but as we shall see, their findings...are certainly suggestive. It may be, of course, that there is no relationship. Or there may be a link, but not a causal one."
See why Palumbo made smoke come out of my ears? He told us Jamison said that creativity is just the product of a mental illness, when Jamison says absolutely nothing of the sort. In fact, she says the opposite -- the two may not be connected at all, but let's look at the data and see what it says.

So LET's look at the data and see what it says. (Palumbo never once suggested we look at the data -- in fact, he suggests that science is poisonous to art. Who gave this man his license?)

On the left, above "expected rate in general population," we see that very, very few people develop mood disorders, with bipolar disorder being the least common of all. Then we see a variety of different studies (many of which were not done by Jamison) showing how much higher the mood disorder rate is in creative people. In fact, if you were to average the percentages from the different studies, you'd come up with something like this:

Bipolar disorder shows up at a rate of about 1% in the general population, and at about 5-15% in the general population. But poets, fiction writers, and musical performers have an astronomically significant bipolar rate of 70-77%. And that's actual data, not someone's opinion, so you can't just "disagree" with it.

Clearly, then, there is a very striking relationship between bipolar disorder and creative writing. We don't actually know if one causes the other or if they're both caused by some third factor (like shared genes), but we do know there's a relationship in many people. The data says so, right there.

Palumbo, still running on the (incorrect) idea that Jamison said that all creativity is caused by bipolar disorder, argues that it is "ludicrous" to "claim that the creative impulse comes from any one source...because it undervalues the mysterious, indefinable aspects of the creative act." Then he quotes author John Fowles: " For what good science tries to eliminate, good art seeks to provoke--mystery, which is lethal to one, and vital to the other."

So this guy Palumbo does therapy. But he doesn't read his research carefully enough to understand what it says. Then he tells us it says something it doesn't. Then he says we should ignore what the data says, because science is anathema to art.

So where does that leave all the creative people who are struggling with bipolar disorder? Many, many creative people are afraid to be treated for their psychological problems because they're afraid to lose their creativity. Palumbo is feeding that myth, even as he suggests that maybe they're not sick at all. It infuriates me that Palumbo takes a phenomenon that's well-supported by research and tells us all we're foolish to believe in it, to just get over ourselves.

Clearly HE's never struggled with a mental illness!

A good therapist not only recognizes that some creative people do struggle with mental illness, she appreciates that treating the illness will often improve the person's ability to share his creativity with the world. She is also sensitive to how important creativity is to the individual, and if a medication or a therapeutic approach interferes with creative output, she's going to try to find an alternative.


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