‘On Creativity’ Part I: Stressed out enough to die

Kids are really amazing. As part of my writing workshop, I tell the students that we can talk about anything they want to.

One really smart 12 year old raised her hand and asked, “Why are writers alcoholics? Why are they crazy?”

She was right. F.Scott Fitzgerald, Cheever, Chandler, James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, Faulkner, were all drunks. Hemingway drank, and blew his brains out with a shotgun.

I was stumped. I said, “Well, writing is a lonely business, and if all you do is write, it makes you stressed and crazy. Back in the day, they just drank a lot to relax.”

She said, “Oh,” but I knew she wasn’t satisfied. And I knew I wasn’t right- writers are still killing themselves, notably David Foster Wallace, who hanged himself in 2008.

Writing isn’t easy for me, too. There are good days, when I feel like a genius. There are bad days, when I can’t write, and the world feels dark and gloomy. And writing plays havoc with my self-confidence: when I write well, I felt great about myself. When I can’t write, my self-worth plummets. It’s always been a roller coaster ride.

On bad days, I hear a voice in my head. It is the voice that says, “Who do you think you are? You’re not a writer. Go out and get a real job. Earn some money. You’re sitting scribbling in a room. How do you know anyone will ever read your stuff?”

So yes, I did share my 12 year old student’s thoughts: deep down, I thought that artists were inherently depressive. The track record just wasn’t good. Look at poor old Van Gogh, going nuts, cutting his ear off, and, yes… blowing his brains out with a shotgun.

Maybe only crazies were drawn to a marginal existence. Maybe you had to be crazy to create. What did that make me, a 44 year old ex-architect with no money in the bank? Completely nuts.

Then I came across a book by Eric Maisel,The Van Gogh Blues: The creative person’s path through depression.

I started reading it, and it blew my mind, because the book could have been describing me, and the way I felt all my life.

Even as a kid, I was restless and always dissatisfied. My parents (God bless them) were very happy living a conventional life, watching TV and going shopping. I, on the other hand, was only happy when drawing or building models out of cardboard.

On a fundamental level, I needed to create. Creating made me feel whole. On days when I couldn’t create, I’d be miserable. Yes, I was a difficult child.

It’s been 44 years, and I still feel that way.

The real breakthrough was understand the relationship between meaning and creativity.

Eric Maisel wrote that creative people have a tough time with meaning. While everyone around them is happy at a 9 to 5 job, watching TV or fooling around on Facebook, us creative types find conventional ways of living to be meaningless. I

“…every creative person came out of the womb ready to interrogate life and determine for herself what life would mean, could mean, and should mean. Her gift or curse was that she was born ready to stubbornly doubt received wisdom and disbelieve that anyone but she was entitled to provide answers to her meaning questions…”

The way that us creative types maintain meaning in our lives is through our creativity. By writing, singing, painting, composing, we take the world we find and transform it into our own personal visions.

As Maisel puts it, creating puts a “veneer of meaning” over an essentially meaningless world.

And creativity is inherently risky, because there is no set path, and plenty of room for failure.

“Not creating is depressing because (the creator) is not making meaning when she is not creating. Creating but falling short in her efforts is also depressing because only insufficient meaning is produced if her products strike her as weak or shallow.”

This really resonated for me. If I have a day when I can’t write, or when I desperately want to write, but have to teach, or run to the grocery store, I’m miserable. Then there are days when I’ve written for five or six hours, and feel what I’ve written is … crap.

“Even creating well can be depressing because of the lingering sense that what she is doing is veneering meaningless.”

Yes! When  a short story that I worked on for a decade was published, I finally held the printed publication in my hands, and felt… depressed. I’d worked so hard on it, been published and now… what? It was in a literary magazine, and about 5 people on the entire planet read it.

So… simply because we’re quirky, idiosyncratic types, us creative people want to live differently. And creativity has built into it many possibilities for depression. You could say that depression is intrinsic to the creative process.

How, then, are we to live, to stay sane and create? Obviously, as my twelve year old student pointed out, drinking ourselves to death isn’t really an option. Nor do I want to blow my brains out with a shotgun.

Intuitively, even before reading this book, I had some answers to fight the lows of the creative process: Go to the gym and work out till the endorphins kick in. Make some really spicy chicken curry. Call my friends.

Turns out these impulses are right, but we can think of leading a creative life in a more structured way: by setting life goals and referring to them when the going gets rough.

I might sound corny, but it works. This has really helped me to smoothen out the roller-coaster ride of the writing process.

Stay tuned for Creativity Part II.

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