Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Mad men

Have you ever suspected, if you’re the creative type, that you’re half-a-hair’s breadth from being batshit insane? I have.

The truth is, I probably should have had myself committed on more than one occasion, and the only thing that kept me from signing off on that was the fear they wouldn’t let me have my computer in there. I wouldn’t be able to write.

Only half-kidding, but you see the point. Creativity seems fairly closely related to madness at times. Artists seem to see the world differently than normal folk. If they didn’t, then everyone would be normal, or everyone would be artists.

Well, now there’s some scientific evidence that creativity, autism, and schizophrenia are all on the same genetic spectrum. Not all that surprising, when you think about it.

This piece in Scientific American, citing another study as well, goes into the details. I won’t try to describe the various psychological elements involved, but suffice to say if you’re an introvert like me and you often see details that other people don’t see, you might have a seat on that spectrum too.

Creativity, to me, has always been about finding connections that aren’t necessarily apparent. The art of the metaphor. It’s a mode of open-mindedness that allows for relationships that don’t make sense on the surface, that might seem contradictory or illogical to the average Joe’s mind. And if the artist isn’t too close to the mad end of the spectrum, she generally has the freedom to explore such connections without fear of being institutionalized. It’s kind of a handshake deal with society: I get to paint pictures that look like a monkey barfed up a baked Alaska on the linoleum, and you (society) leave me alone because I’m kind of entertaining to you.

As the article points out, though, creativity isn’t limited to the arts. It’s a powerful mode in the sciences, business, sports — just about every field of human endeavor. Creativity is the force that pushes us past the status quo. It doesn’t let us sit on our laurels (which only results in crushed laurels). It makes us look around for new solutions to old problems as well as new problems we might not have known we had.

Yes, there are many examples of the tortured artist on hand. It almost seems like bipolar disorder is part and parcel of the job. Van Gogh, Mozart, Einstein, you name it. This is probably because seeing all those bizarre connections is taxing, and a little scary. You can’t really talk about them till you produce your work of art. Nobody understands. They look at you funny. You come across at parties like Werner Herzog talking obsessively about chickens. Everyone moves away from you.

The creative artist. It’s a lousy job but somebody has to do it. Let’s give it to the borderline schizophrenics! After all, as Pink Floyd says, “Got to keep the loonies on the path.”

(Image: The First Book of Urizen, Plate 7, by William Blake.)


13 comments on “Mad men

  1. John W. Howell
    June 22, 2015

    Have to agree. My loving wife just confessed that she considers me a little nuts but loves it. Here I thought everyone else was off.

  2. kingmidget
    June 22, 2015

    I had a conversation with my brother about this while we were on our backpacking trip last weekend. I don’t think of it as being crazy or close to crazy. I view it as the problem with spending a lot of time in your head. . When I’m in a story, really in a story, I’m in it in my head in a lot of different ways. It’s very difficult to interact with the real world when that’s happening. And when you’re in your head, there are some corners in there, dark shadows, cobwebbed spaces. You know, there are some things in there that can just take you down the rabbit hole. The more time you spend in your head, the more time you spend there. Does that make sense? It may just lead to a bit of madness. My dad was a writer as well (still is, actually) and he was “away” from us a lot when I was a kid. I didn’t get it then. I get it now. He used to look like he was having a conversation with himself while we sat at the family dinner table. I’ve been accused recently of doing the same thing. Well, yeah, because sometimes I’m back in Northville, or Santo Cielo, or on the shores of Sullivan Bay, trying to squeeze the nut out and move the story forward. Sometimes, I’m not really here with you. I’m over there, with Pete or Lily or Father Santos or Henry Thornton, imagining what may be happening to them next.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 22, 2015

      Absolutely true, Mark. And the only way to write about a made-up universe is to inhabit it somehow. Most writers I know are able to distinguish that made-up world from the real world, though, so they’re not certifiably nuts.

      Sometimes we do tend to linger on the other side. 😉

  3. sknicholls
    June 22, 2015

    I had a comment and then retracted it in my mind. I’m not just an author, but have a list of psychological diagnoses that have evolved over the years: acute psychotic episode, schizo-affective, bipolar, anxiety d.o….so I may not be qualified to answer as a totally sane person.

    I agree with you about creativity. And I agree with Mark about losing yourself in your head without being certifiably “crazy”.

    Anyone who walks in the door of a mental facility can easily be labeled based on DSM-V criteria. ANYONE. There are those who have made it to the door and those who have not.

    I believe you hit the proverbial nail on the head with this: “Creativity, to me, has always been about finding connections that aren’t necessarily apparent.”

    This is true both in mental illness and creativity. Psychosis characterized by loose associations is a good example. The manifestation of a thought disorder whereby the patient’s responses do not relate to the interviewer’s questions, or one paragraph, sentence, or phrase is not logically connected to those that occur before or after. To the psychotic, they are making perfect sense…it’s the interviewer who hasn’t figured things out yet. Not logically connected, says who?

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 22, 2015

      And that’s exactly it: these connections make sense to the mind that found them. The artist is able to come up with a way to make them understandable to others. That might not even be the artist’s goal, but the work of art speaks for itself. The psychotic can’t translate the connections for us so gets stuck with that nasty diagnosis…

      • sknicholls
        June 22, 2015

        So many who are diagnosed aren’t willing or able to work with their doctors (or their doctors are a..holes who won’t work with them) to find the balance necessary without either the side-effects of meds or stifling of creativity. It can take years of titrations and adjustments…really a never-ending process. When I worked in a forensics unit at a State hospital with those who were severely afflicted, I saw and read some radically fascinating creations by psychotics. We need more compassion for them, and funding.

      • Kevin Brennan
        June 23, 2015

        Good point. It also gets lost in the noise that creativity doesn’t have to be a professional pursuit. It’s a mode of expression too.

  4. Phillip McCollum
    June 24, 2015

    It does seem like a balance for most of us. I think one key to being a successful artist is staying close enough to the sane side that you can translate your insanity to the rest of the world. Makes sense in my head anyway, but to an insane person, lots of things make sense that probably shouldn’t….

    Thanks for the article link!

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 24, 2015

      Things are nice here, where the sky is green and the grass is pink. I guess I shouldn’t mention that, though…

  5. cinthiaritchie
    July 23, 2015

    Years and years ago when I was young, I was committed (for severe depression, which is why I run now–it keeps the crazy away) and they hated (hated!) that I wrote and read, they’d write me up on their charts as being anti-social. I guess they expected me to sit on the sofa and watch trash TV, which is what everyone else did. That was totally accepted. Reading, not so much. And writing–dear lord, that seemed to scare the doctors to death, lol.
    There is a very thin line between creativity and madness. Sometimes I think that this line exists in everyone, and artists and writers and creatives are simply brave or stupid or desperate enough to occasionally cross over. Maybe we long to see what’s on the other side, while “normal” people are wisely content to let it pass, or maybe we are wired differently and it’s inevitable that we flirt with the crazy side every now and again.
    P.S. I’m terribly pleased that you found a way to slip in the word “Alaska” in your post. Kudos to you, hee, hee.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 23, 2015

      I’m so glad you found the right therapies for your crazy, Cinthia: running and writing. It’s so tough when you’re young and you can’t really figure out what’s going on, but thanks to capital C-Creativity the lucky ones among us have a fightin’ chance. Like I said, sometimes it takes a slightly skewed mind to see connections and ironies that other people don’t see.

      PS — I’m also glad there’s no such thing as Baked Ohio.

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This entry was posted on June 22, 2015 by in Writing and tagged , , , , .
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