Backstories Discussion of writing style Literary analysis

3 The Creative Process – The redemptive power of fiction

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:

“I liked to watch the fights. Somehow it reminded me of writing. You needed the same thing, talent, guts and condition. Only the condition was mental, spiritual. You were never a writer. You had to become a writer every time you sat down to the machine. It wasn’t that hard once you sat down in front of the machine. What was hard sometimes was finding that chair and sitting in it. Sometimes you couldn’t sit in it. Like everybody else in the world, for you, things got in the way: small troubles, big troubles, continuous slammings and bangings. You had to be in condition to endure what was trying to kill you.”

Hollywood, by Charles Bukowski, p.237

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.

“Do [research] results imply that creativity and psychopathology are intimately connected? Are genius and madness tantamount to the same thing? The answer to the first question is affirmative, but the response to the second is negative. The affirmation comes from the fact that various indicators of mental health appear to be negatively associated with creative achievement. This fact is demonstrated by historiometric, psychiatric and psychometric sources. The negation emerges from the equally crucial reality that few creative individuals can be considered truly mentally ill. Indeed, outright psychopathology usually inhibits rather than helps creative expression.

Even more significant is the fact that a very large proportion of creators exhibit no pathological symptoms, at least not to any measurable degree. Hence, psychopathology is by no means a sine qua non of creativity. Instead, it is probably more accurate to say that creativity shares certain cognitive and dispositional traits with specific symptoms, and that the degree of that commonality is contingent on the level and type of creativity that an individual displays. To be more specific, the relationship can be expressed as follows:

In general, creativity requires the cognitive ability and the dispositional willingness to ‘think outside the box’; to explore novel, unconventional and even odd possibilities; to be open to serendipitous events and fortuitous results; and to imagine the implausible or consider the unlikely. From this requirement arises the need for creators to have such traits as defocused attention, divergent thinking, openness to experience, independence and nonconformity. Let us call this complex configuration of traits the ‘creativity cluster.’ The higher the level of creativity displayed, the higher the likelihood that the individual manifests this cluster.”

Dean Keith Simonton, PhD, Are Genius and Madness Related? Contemporary Answers to an Ancient Question,  published on, Apr. 6, 2011. Rtrvd. 2018-01-26

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?

David Foster Wallace (Image: The Globe and Mail)

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:

“We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.”

Interview with David Foster Wallace by Larry McCaffery, in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1993, Vol. 13.2

Next article: A list of authors who are as disreputable as the characters they created.

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