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Angst, Mental Illness, and Creativity

This time I was responsible for choosing the blog chain topic. Kate (who comes before me in the chain) just did a great wrap up of our last chain , on confidence. Michelle  (who comes after me in the chain) will be the next to tackle the questions I've chosen:

Some people argue that creative people need “angst” to produce good work. Do you? What emotions drive you as a writer?

Angst (n.) (ängkst)
Everyone talks about angst-ridden creative people, so I looked up the definition of the word “angst” to get myself going. (I normally hate when people include definitions — hello, I can use a dictionary — but I’m making an exception so you and I both know what the heck we mean when we say “angst.”) The word is German and refers to an “A feeling of anxiety or apprehension often accompanied by depression .” Fanfic writers use the word to help categorize some forms of fanfic: “Putting the characters and by extension the readers through deep emotional and possibly physical pain .”

Mental Illness
Some people take the angst idea a step farther. They believe that writers need to be at least a little touched by madness. Interestingly, there is a strong positive correlation between bipolar disorder (aka manic depression) and creativity . According to Frederick Goodwin and Kay Redfield Jamison, both giants in the study of bipolar disorder:
It is counterintuitive that such a destructive illness could be associated with imagination or great works of art. Yet the perceived association is a persistent cultural belief and one that is backed by data from many studies… The argument is not that manic-depressive illness and its related temperaments are essential to creative work; clearly they are not. Nor do we argue that most people who have bipolar or recurrent depressive illness are creative; they are not. The argument is, rather, that a disproportionate number of eminent writers and artists have suffered from bipolar spectrum disorders and that, under some circumstances, creativity can be facilitated by such disorders.
From Michelangelo and Jackson Pollock to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley, from Kurt Cobain and Billy Corgan to Ernest Hemingway and Stephen King, depression or bipolar illness is disproportionately common in creative geniuses.

Is Angst Necessary?
Now, if bipolar disorder and depression are common in creative geniuses, and angst is a description of how people with those disorders often feel, does that mean angst is necessary to the creative process?

Well…let’s see what the others in the blog chain think.

Looking at the psychological research…no. Interestingly, people who are creative have more in common with people who are bipolar than they do with “normal” people, but the commonalities lie not necessarily in mood disturbances, but rather in idiosyncratic thinking patterns, in enthusiasm and passion for their art, in how easily they can produce new and strange ideas. In many cases, people who are bipolar and creative are better able to express themselves creatively when they are being appropriately treated for their disorders.

Part of what makes being creative with a mental illness so difficult is the behaviors that result. Alcoholism is found in over 50% of the people with bipolar disorder. Drug abuse is also extremely high. Periods of despair can be so intense that the individual can hardly get out of bed, let alone create something. And of course the rate of suicide and suicide attempts is much higher than in creative people who aren’t also struggling with a mental illness.

The way I think of it is like this — there is an overlap between “creative” genes and “bipolar/depressive” genes. And while some people, like Kurt Cobain, feel much more creative when they’re in the manic phase of bipolar disorder, they may also be less coherent (“Smells Like Teen Spirit” lyrics, anyone?), and they also have to deal with the crash of depression (Cobain committed suicide). Research also suggests that over time depressive/bipolar illnesses gnaw away at creativity. In a study done with children , “we found a negative correlation of illness duration with…creativity ; the longer the children were sick, the less creative they were.” So overall, the illness becomes a hindrance to creativity, rather than a help.

Angst vs. Soul
An ex of mine was an amazing artist, technically. He could reproduce anything he saw, often without ever lifting the pencil. I’ve never seen someone who could draw like he could without ever needing to erase. He didn’t need to work the image over and over from rough to smooth — he just produced an immaculate image the first time.

He spoke at one point to some galleries about displaying his work, but he was turned down. One director was kind enough to give him some feedback. She told him something was “missing” from his work.

He thought it was angst. But it wasn’t. (He got to share mine, and it didn’t affect his art at all. I checked.) What he was missing was soul.

So I don’t think it’s angst that we all need to produce good stuff. It’s soul.

My Angst
So that brings us to me. Do I need angst to produce good work? I honestly don’t know, because precocious creative works started around the same time my angst found me. So I’m really curious about what the others in the blog chain are going to say.

I do have an emotional state that I think I write in better than any other (besides flow, of course). I call it “melancholy.” It’s a calm, quiet state that for some reason makes it easier to sink into a creative state. But maybe the reason that’s helpful is that I enjoy writing fiction with “angst” in it.

I have met people who become extremely distraught about putting their characters through a tale of angst. Some cry, some sink into a depression, some feel guilty. I’m not sure why they write it if they feel that way. (The only time I sink into a depression as a result of writing is when I finish a novel — I always worry I won’t be able to write another one!) For me, writing angst is like an outlet for my own. If I’ve got it, why not plumb it for material?

The Psychology of Halloween (Guest Blogger)

This entry is courtesy of guest blogger Sarah-Jayne Gratton, PhD.

It’s that time of the year again when witches, ghosts and ghouls roam the streets in search of candy. No longer just a throwback to the Celtic Festival of Samhain, where the end of the Celtic year was thought to be associated with death. Today Halloween means holiday--a time for dressing up, having fun, eating candy and watching scary movies!

And it’s not just for the kids. There’s something so timelessly magical in the golden colors of fall that’s annually reflected in the glowing flames of our Jack O’Lantern smiles. Rather than feeling a creepy chill in the air, instead, many of us today associate a sense of warmth and togetherness with the date October 31st. The past associations with all things evil have today been replaced by the amusing notion of ‘a good scare’ , meaning that it’s time once again to party in ‘Halloweenland’.

The Roots of our Rituals
The commercial exploitation of Halloween didn’t begin until the 20th century for the most part and mass-produced Halloween costumes didn’t make their appearance until the 1950s, when ‘trick-or-treating’ became firmly embedded in the rituals of the holiday.

The mask-like images associated with Halloween, like the holiday itself, also have their roots in Celtic practices and likewise, their place in the modern psychology of the event. In fact, the ritual of putting on a mask to become someone else outside of ourselves is something that we have truly embraced in western society, not just as a means of entertainment, but as a means of escape.

Fear as a Release
“The basis of optimism is sheer terror.”  - Oscar Wilde - The Picture of Dorian Gray

Modern life has never been so easy - or so stressful. The dichotomy presented by advances in technology is all around us; supposedly developed to make our lives easier, psychological research suggests that they can create a mental prison of inescapable responsibility. With this in mind, the notion of a faceless boogeyman stalking us has never been more readily embraced by audiences, especially as it may well be linked to these increasingly common feelings of insecurity and disillusionment that many of us feel in the twenty-first century.

In short, there is no escape from the cell phones, the computers, the pagers and of course the net - in cyberspace everyone can hear you scream! Unconsciously, many of us may seek out a psychological release though the adrenalin-infused horror movies we choose to obsess about at this time of year. Following this release, at the movies end, and as a result of all that adrenalin being pumped through our bodies, we often experience a similarly positive physiological response, where feelings of giddiness, euphoria and later relaxation weave their addictive charm and keep us coming back for more.

The Future
As far as the future of Halloween is concerned, we can be fairly certain that its popularity will continue to grow as more and more cultures embrace its holiday and commercial appeal. In fact, with more articles than ever being written about it, more stores than ever stocking up on cards, candies and costumes in readiness for it and the television and movie studios all looking to give us the ‘fright of our lives’ on the night, it seems that the ritual of ‘selling our souls’ to the psychological motivators that keep the Halloween wheels turning may just be good for us after all.

Dr Sarah-Jayne Gratton has a PhD in Psychology and an Advanced Diploma in Psychotherapy and Hypnotherapy. She is the author of Marketing Wireless Products (Butterworth Heinemann, 2004) and her work has been published in a number of newspapers and magazines.

Work's a Bitch...

I had the great privilege of being quoted several times in career consultant and executive coach Andrea Kay's new book, Work's a Bitch and Then You Make It Work: 6 Steps to Go from Pissed Off to Powerful (a sequel to her popular Life's a Bitch and Then You Change Careers: 9 Steps to Get Out of Your Funk and On to Your Future).

One thing I particularly love about Andrea's books is her practical, step-by-step approach. Her goal is to get you where you want to be in your career, and there's nothing esoteric about her approach. She buckles right down with you and gives you frank, concrete advice that actually works. So if you're one of the 85% of people who feel stuck and disillusioned in your career, pick up a copy today!

Confidence & Determination

Blog chain time again!  This time, the question was posed by Kate Karyus Quinn, who asked

How as a writer find do you find the balance between being having too much or too little confidence in your work?

Let me start with the confidence.  When I've written something, and the words have just flowed, I sometimes feel like I'm looking down on the Seventh Day, basking in the warmth of my creation and proclaiming, It Is Good.  I'll feel like I've captured the emotion and the angst; or the flavor, color, and texture of the world I envisioned.  The characters will be as real as Real People to me. I'll feel that glow in my chest: Of course I'm a writer.  This is something I was meant to do.

Now, as a psychologist, I believe it's not only okay, it's healthy to be able to say to yourself, "I did a good job on that." "I'm a good writer." You don't have to announce it to the world (in fact, you probably shouldn't!), but you're healthier if you have a secret little place inside with a nice big refrigerator to put up your accomplishments, and where you can nod and pat yourself on the back and think, I Did Good.  I even have lots of professional terms to make that all sound more authoritative, like self-esteem, self-efficacy, and adequate mirroring on the Grandiose Pole.  But I'm going to skip all that for right now.

If feeling good about what you'd written was as far as any of this went, all would be well.  But so many of us have this urge, this drive, this need to get published.  And what is that all about anyways?  Few people make money publishing.  It's cool, but unless you're Stephenie Meyer or JK Rowling or whoever this week's Hot Writer is, it's a passing cool that others soon forget.  Getting published doesn't make you beautiful or thin or get you a Happily Ever After with whichever celebrity you drool over most.

Yet the need remains. So you sweat blood over a query and open a vein to get the synopsis right and then, hoping, praying, believing you've got something others will love, you start sending your work out to others.

Some writers start with crit buddies, some jump straight to agents and publishers; some do both simultaneously.  And most soon discover that not everyone else thinks their work is so good.

According to Robert Heinlein, that's where a lot of people quit.  In fact, he believed that only half the writers who actually put pen to paper (or words to screen) and finish what they start have the guts to submit to agents and publishers.
Writers...are inordinately fond of their brainchildren.  They would rather see their firstborn child ravaged by wolves than suffer the pain of having a manuscript rejected.  So instead they [only] read their manuscripts aloud to spouses and long-suffering friends.
But you're not satisfied to believe the friends and family who swear your work is fantastic -- you have to send your work out to people outside that little circle.  And as the crits roll in and the rejections pile up, you look at your work with fresh eyes, and you realize it's miserable.  It's embarrassingly horrible.  You're embarrassingly horrible, and stupid besides to ever have believed someone else might be interested in the ridiculous stories you make up in your head.

Lather, rinse, repeat.  Crit after crit, rejection letter after rejection letter.

Some throw in the towel right away.  "The world just isn't ready for my material," they sniff, or they decide that all agents are self-important assholes who wouldn't know a good story if it ran them over.  There are even websites that exist for the purpose of ranting about your rejections and throwing mud back at the agents who sent them.  (Who are, by the way, human beings who are just doing their jobs as best they can.  But that's another blog post.)

Other writers are worn down over weeks, months, or years of querying.  Or by disapproving relatives.  Or by savage critique "buddies."  The rejection hurts.  A lot.

But some always manage to drag themselves out of the dirt, brush themselves off, and try again.  Just like they need to write, they need to keep trying to get published.

"Writing is a calling," says editor Betsy Lerner.  "If the call subsides, so be it. [But] when writers say they have no choice, what they mean is: Everything in the world conspired to make me quit, but I kept going."  She goes on:
Many writers have gathered their marbles and gone home for far less cause. It takes a supreme talent and fierce self-belief to write in the face of such acrimony... If the high wire is for you, if the spotlight is for you, if you believe that everyone should pay attention to you and your work, then you must stay focused.  Ambivalence will never get you anywhere.
What it comes down to, I've read over and over again, is determination in the face of all that feedback, all those rejections.  A willingness to learn, of course, but also determination to overcome and succeed:
  • The degree of one's perseverance is the best predictor of success - Betsy Lerner
  • In all manner of pursuits there's a tendency to overesimate brilliance and underestimate persistence.  Talent is common.  Determination is rare. -Ralph Keyes
  • [The authors of the Chicken Soup books] instinctively understood that all those rejections were simply an uncomfortable part of the process that would eventually get them where they wanted to be. - literary agent Jeff Herman
  • [Author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Ken] Kesey  was not even remotely the best writer in class [at the writing program at Stanford], but he was maniacally determined. - Classmate and writer Thomas McGuane
  • Talent is extremely common.  What is rare is the willingness to endure the life of a writer - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
So where do you find the determination?  According to Keyes, you have to hate the idea of being ignored, of never being read, more than you hate the pain of rejection. "It is some combination of ability and ego," adds Lerner, "desire and discipline, that produces good work." She continues: 
A writer's success or faltering can usually be traced to some abundance or deficit of those elements.  Some of the most gifted writers I've worked with were also the most self-sabotaging.  Lack of discipline, desire for fame, and depression often thwart those whose talents appear most fertile, while those who struggle with every line persevere regardless.
In many ways, learning to deal with rejection from agents and publishers is just the first step.  Because when you do manage to get published, you will have to deal with critics, the bloodthirsty pirahna in the sea of your success.  People who have sudden, overwhelming success, are not prepared for it.  And that may topple them and keep them from producing good work going forward.  So keep running that gauntlet, and be proud of your calluses and scars, because they mean you believed in yourself enough to keep going.

Don't forget to check out Kate's post before mine -- it's a joy to read! And then hop over to Michelle McLean's blog and see how she manages that delicate balance between too much and too little confidence!

Archetype Site Updates


This time Mary Lindsey started the blog chain with the deep and academic question

What kind of quirky habits or rituals do you have regarding your writing?
(or regarding anything else, if that is more fun.)

Our previous chain was tied up with a bow by HL Dyer, so be sure to check out her Summary/Wrap-Up for Creating Story Worlds.

So back to the current chain question.  After Mary shared her neat-freak habits and took us on the magnificent world adventures of her writing buddy, a fluffy lamb named Beeyaaa (that's 2 e's and 3 a's).

Then Kate shared her unusual sandwich-eating tendencies, including her issues with tomatoes...which  makes her wonder if she might not have a touch of OCD.  She also showed us her writing space, which is remarkably dangerous given some Ikea shelves that loom over her head, just waiting to toss their contents onto her head.

So now it's my turn.  Yikes!

My quirkiest writing habit is that I like to write longhand when I get stuck.  I find the cursor blinking so patiently at me on a blank screen to be more mocking than patient.  But blank paper I find comforting.  I have notebooks filled with longhand notes around my writing areas.  If I don't have the notebook handy, I write on whatever I do and staple it in later.  I used to leave everything loose, but I'm kind of a klutz, and after you've dropped something like that a few times...well, a stapler becomes your friend.

When I edit, I often edit in longhand, and I'm very particular about using multiple colors of FELT TIP pens.  Pilot Razorpoints are nice.
It is very difficult to find felt-tip pens these days.  Everything has gone rollerball.  This upsets me, because I want FELT TIP pens. And you can't buy those things in OfficeMax anymore.  No, you have to go to an art supply store.  I'm very upset about the dearth of felt-tip pens in my OfficeMax.

Now, before you decide I'm OCD with my little felt-tip pen obsession, I think you should probably see my desk.


This is what my desk looks like when it's mostly CLEAN.  It's often a couple feet deep.  And this is an ongoing problem.  My desk at work is even worse. Students walk in and laugh. I have these great Post-It notes that say "My desk, my mess, my business." This was the best representation I could find since I'm not at work to scan them:

On a slightly different note, when people say "books to help you write better stories," I think of something a little different than the average writer:


Now, let's say you had a character named...oh, let's make her named Kate. *wink* And Kate thought she had OCD.  If you used one of those regular writer's books, you'd be in big trouble.  But I can just grab my DSM-IV there and check out whether the symptoms might show up if she had strange sandwich-eating habits, for example.


And I can also see in the Differential Diagnosis section the things she might have besides OCD.  Like...oh, hypochondria.  (Just kidding, Kate.)

So on to the illustrious Michelle McLean, who is going to share her quirky writing habits with you!

Readers! Have your own quirky writing habits? Don’t forget to post your own comment before you go!

I got tagged!

My friend (and fellow blog chain member) Abi tagged me, and that means means that I’m supposed to answer the questions that were asked of her when she got tagged.

4 goals I have in the next 5 years:
1. Sell my nonfiction book -- my wonderful agent, Kate Epstein, is currently submitting it
2. Land a fiction agent
3. Sell a fiction book with the help of said agent.
4. See both books on the bookshelves and listed on Amazon!

4 places I will visit someday:
1. The Grand Canyon
2. The Louvre
3. Hawaii
4. Tuscany

4 of my favorite foods:
1. Barnum & Bailey animal crackers
2. Uno's Chicago deep dish pizza
3. Graeter's ice cream
4. Wendys!

4 jobs I've had:
1. graphic designer
2. webmaster
3. psychotherapist
4. professor

2 places I've lived:
1. Toronto
2. Pittsburgh

2 places I'd like to live:
1. San Diego
2. ?

4 things I'd do with my spare time (if I had any):
1. photomanipulations
2. draw
3. sew
4. write

Now, I'm supposed to tag some folks, but everyone in my blog chain has been tagged already (I think).  So, dear reader, you need to help me out.  Consider yourself tagged!  Drop me a comment and let me know you decided to do me the honor (and so I can tell my blog chain friends I'm cool). ;-)

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