Creativity and Madness

Posted: 20th July 2010 by Mike Swickey in ArchivedSite

We’ve heard it all before: creativity is a by-product of madness — or vice-versa. Is there a link? If so, is it the chicken or the egg? Few would doubt that, going back as far as Shakespeare, there is a close connection between creativity of all kinds and emotional turmoil of all kinds. Is it true?

A new book has hit shelves recently that looks at this creativity/madness link by telling the stories of famous creative types and trying to interpret the meaning of it all. I can’t offer a review of the book, as it went into my Amazon basket just tonight. But the idea has always intrigued me and I expect Divine Madness, by Jeffrey A. Kottler, to offer some insight into this mystery of the mind.

Many writers, artists, musicians, actors, designers and others would tell you that they don’t need research, the link is true. But the research is interesting. Consider this from the online periodical Science Frontiers:

The observation that creativity and genius are often allied with psychiatric problems is an ancient one. More recently, male writers have been shown to have high rates of mood disorders and alcoholism.

Perusing these kinds of correlations further, but with the female sex, A. Ludwig, of the University of Kentucky Medical Center, chose as his “creativity” sample 59 female writers attending a Women Writers Conference. These were compared with 59 non-writers matched in terms of social, demographic, and family factors. Psychiatric problems in both groups were elicited through interviews. As the table below shows, the psycho-pathological differences between writers and non-writers are large.

Diagnosis Writers Non-writers
Depression 56% 14%
Mania 19 3
Panic attacks 22 5
Eating disorders 12 2
Drug abuse 17 5
Childhood sexual abuse 39 12
(Anonymous; “Madness and Creativity Revisited,” Science, 266:1483, 1994)

Divine Madness: Ten Stories of Creative Struggle is described by the publisher:

Dramatic stories of famous artists who suffered emotional turmoil in their quest for success and survival In this engaging story of the emotional origins of creativity, Jeffrey Kottler writes about the dramatic and tragic lives of such genius artists as Sylvia Plath, Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Mark Rothko, Judy Garland, Brian Wilson, Charles Mingus, Vaslav Nijinsky and Lenny Bruce . In each case, he writes a fascinating personal story that also analyzes how each of these exceptional women and men struggled to overcome their emotional hardships, and how their psychological issues impacted their lives and work, as well as their great productivity and success.

Creativity, genius, productivity and – madness. It’s all worthy of a new book length examination and I eagerly await Kottler’s latest work, not so much to convince me (I’m more than convinced), but to see how Kottler puts it all in perspective. On a related note, I found this excellent interview, “Creativity, Brilliance and Madness,” from Australia’s ABC Radio National. It’s a fascinating topic that always seems to resonate with those who live the creative life.