In the previous article, part 2 of the Long Read about the creative process, I looked at the link between unreliable narrators (characters) and their creators. To continue…
Does writing drive authors to drink, drugs or insanity, or is it that creativity linked to insanity?
Numerous studies have been done on the link between creativity (or genius) and mental illness. But the basic premise is that creative output, particularly writing, is just very hard, very challenging and enervating.
Charles Bukowski, the ultimate example of drinker and creative genius combined, wrote in his novel Hollywood, though his alter-ego, “Henry Chinaski”, also a writer:
Medical categorization of addiction
The subject is complicated – there are many degrees of any illness and creativity is difficult to define. However, most scientists agree that the net result of any kind of serious mental problem in the artist is a negative effect on their output in art, literature or music. The artist might believe that a steady dose of drink or drugs has a short-term positive effect, but that they are not addicted per se. (As Charles Bukowski said, he is a drinker, a barfly, a drunk or “a historian of drink” – but not an alcoholic.)
In the case of actual mental illness, an old (no longer acceptable) study suggested that “madness” could enhance creativity by promoting intense motivation and imagination, and by removing social and cultural constraints that favour conformity. It was perhaps a romantic notion. More recent research indicates the opposite.
The instances of so-called “high-functioning” addicts, depressives and alcoholics are much fewer than those who just lead ruined lives and produce inferior work.
Do novels about addiction or metal illness do something for the reader – help them somehow?
Author David Foster Wallace (whose photo is in the header, and who died by suicide in 2008) clearly identified with, and was fascinated by, the world of recovery, as opposed to addiction, particularly in his most famous novel, Infinite Jest, which was partly set in a halfway house for addicts and alcoholics. He explained why he writes fiction about additions and mental illness. It makes sense. Perhaps his is the most plausible reason of all: