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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?


  1. Anonymous said...
    Oooo...Archy, I'm in angst over this topic! It is an interesting question and one I am looking forward to reading others' opinions about.

    I think you may be onto something with the angst vs. soul.

    Anonymous said...
    Archy, awesome post. I'm really going to have analyze myself for my moods. Too bad I'm posting so soon! Oh, the angst! :D
    Kate Karyus Quinn said...
    Wow, this is a really deep question and I love the scholarly approach you took with it. I can't wait to read more responses!
    H. L. Dyer said...
    Well, I have to say. Very appropriate topic for you to choose. *snort*

    Great post!
    Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...
    Interesting topic. I agree that extereme mental illness can interfere with creativity.
    Ripley said...
    I write best in angst but I also question everything I have written while feeling that way until the feeling passes and look back and say... that's not bad.
    Michelle McLean said...
    Oh dear. I have to follow your excellent post and your excellent topic choice...oh the angst!!! :D Wonderful post - I liked the angst vs the soul thing - you are so right - writing (painting, poetry, art of any kind) without soul is lifeless. If a little angst can add some soul to my work, I'm all for it :)
    TerriRainer said...
    OH! That was a great post!

    I could so relate to what you said.

    Nothing like raising the bar with the very first post!

    :) Terri
    Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...
    I love your discovery about "soul" vs. "angst." You really nailed it for me.

    Great post. I look forward to my turn.

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