Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Does Creativity Drive People Crazy?

I recently attended a lecture by a prominent academic who theorized that creativity was somehow connected to mental illness. She cited a number of examples that ran the gamut from Lincoln and Churchill to numerous famous writers like Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald, and artists like the posthumously acclaimed, institutionally committed painter Vincent Van Gogh.

Citing the fact that Lincoln and Churchill allegedly suffered from depression and novelists like Hemingway committed suicide, while Faulkner and Fitzgerald were alcoholics, she seemed quite positive that her theory was correct. As further evidence, she named a number of other brilliant scientists like Newton and Einstein, the latter because he had a schizophrenic son.

What began as mere disagreement with this thesis, grew into a vehement and accelerating antagonism. Boiled down to its essence, this academic spread the notion that to be truly creative you had to be off the beam or whatever the politically correct term is these days for varying degrees of mental illness.

The absurdity of this idea amounts to insult. It is probably true that some creative people, like others in the population, have some form of mental illness. But, I would argue, that the vast majority of creative people do not fall into this category. There is only one common thread. They are creative. They create ideas and invent things that have not existed before. That alone makes them different.

Like love, no one has adequately explained why some people are creative and some are not. Neuroscientists offering theories and speculations might tell you that they know where in the brain creativity takes place, but they can't tell you why or how.

Nevertheless, once the anger passed, the idea did spawn some thoughts, not only about the nature of creativity but how worldly validation, meaning success and celebrity, and its dark opposite, failure and non-recognition can lead an artistic creator to a form of pathological behavior.

It is quite true that so-called famous writers have, indeed, succumbed to what might be termed mental illness or its various manifestations like depression, addiction, paranoia or suicidal behavior. Hemingway was hospitalized in the Mayo Clinic for paranoia and later put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. In his case, suicide was a family disease. Faulkner in his later years was a drunk and apparently died from falling off his horse while under the influence.

Fitzgerald became a hopeless alcoholic and died at age 40 from the addiction. Jack London disappeared at sea, an alleged suicide. Edgar Allen Poe was found dead on a Baltimore street, presumably from alcoholism. To compound the mystery of this degrading death he was not even wearing his own clothes. Von Gogh checked himself into a mental hospital and, as further proof of his unbalanced state, cut off an ear.

As for Lincoln and Churchill, who, I suppose can be characterized as creative, their admitted depressions may qualify for mental illness, but I wouldn't attribute their creativity to that ailment. I'm not sure that Lincoln, a great President, can qualify as being "creative," although I would dub Churchill, a novelist and writer, certainly a creative force.

Creativity is not necessarily the province of only those who have attained worldly success. In fact, I would say that worldly success is probably the enemy of creativity. All of the writers cited above were enormously successful early in life. They were lauded, lionized, and celebrated. In my opinion, it was this very early success that brought them down. Perhaps they had either lost faith in their creativity or for one reason or another felt they could not match their earlier creative surge. One might even speculate that they became mentally unbalanced by their inability to match the very creativity that had made them famous. But, it was not, as the professor had alleged, because their creativity was a byproduct of mental illness.

In my circle who did achieve recognition and commercial success. Their creative work was dazzling and incandescent. But for some reason, they never fulfilled their dreams of validation by others, meaning worldly success. The landscape is littered with such enormously creative people who, for one reason or another, never achieved their dream of recognition, although they might have been satisfied with a very personal fulfillment.

Perhaps they were lacking in drive or could not handle rejection or were intimidated by the arrogance and criticism of the doorkeepers of the moment. Or they might have grown tired of being pummeled by the combat of the marketplace and no longer submitted their work to anyone. They might have plied their creativity in secret, filling trunks with manuscripts and closets and basements with paintings, hoping that a next generation might stumble on their work and publish it for posterity. On the other hand, they might have deliberately chosen anonymity and non-recognition, pursuing their creative art to satisfy a very private dream.

The battle for recognition is fierce and mostly unfair. The bitch Goddess of Luck is fickle and unmerciful. And God help those who are blessed with luck that abruptly runs out and leaves their ship of success stranded in a windless sea. I wonder which is worse, no success at all or success that mysteriously aborts after an initial spurt?

Because I am a writer, I am using the creative writing analogy, but it applies equally to all artists, painters, composers or anyone that creates something that had never existed before. The analogy also applies to scientists, inventors and those who embellish and interpret the creative achievements of others like actors, singers, and dancers as well. Such performers may resent being relegated to mere interpreters of other people's creativity and I will concede I could be accused of too narrow a definition.

The fact is that worldly success for a creative person requires, aside from Lady Luck, a certain singular mindset, an obsessive pursuit of recognition, a selfishly organized life in pursuit of one's creative dream which can be stressful enough to push people over the edge of sanity and, perhaps, bring on some manifestation of mental illness.

I often wonder what became of all my talented acquaintances who burned with artistic zeal and creative ambition and disappeared into oblivion, the oblivion of my own perspective at least. Were they failures in the worldly sense, dropouts in the game of life, cursed or blessed by the creative spark? Or simply losers in a race where there is no finish line?

I am in no way trying to denigrate the great creative minds that have made it into the pantheon of immortality. That too, is an unpredictable war of survival drawn from a pool of mostly recognized creators, many of them, well known in their day, Michelangelo and Rembrandt, for example. Their immortality is well deserved and we all recognize their work as pinnacles of creative effort and an invaluable contribution to world culture.

I am paying tribute here to the unrecognized, the anonymous, the unknown, the unsung, that intrepid band of creative writers and artists who, for one reason or another, have failed to garner any traction among the doorkeepers of their era, but, nevertheless, deserve our praise and admiration for their efforts and our loss.

Not to realize one's dream can, indeed, drive one crazy. It is not, as the professor alleges, the other way around.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Sometimes an "Apple" Falls Far From the Tree

You hear it everywhere. The death knell of the "reader," meaning the reader of books. None other than the great jillionaire Steve Jobs, in remarking about the future of Amazon's Kindle, the e-book reading device recently launched, declared it would fail because "people have stopped reading."

If one cites the obvious, the evidence is chilling. Newspaper readership is declining, meaning the paper newspaper and on-line "newspapering" has not yet taken up the financial slack. Some magazines are still healthy financially, but there is evidence that the ceiling may have been reached in that medium. Information delivery is migrating to the Internet at an ever increasing pace. It is mind boggling, unprecedented, and epochal.

I have strong doubts that Mr. Jobs was referring to informational reading, instructive reading, academic reading, current events reading, scientific reading and the like, all of which are available on the Kindle. Without the ability to read even the Apple would have remained simply the name of a fruit. Surely he could not have meant that movies and games and music have totally and irrevocably replaced reading and erased the need for such an enterprise. I suspect that he was referring to story reading, meaning fiction or creative reading.

He may have a point, although I doubt it. Reading, both serious fiction reading and entertainment, has always occupied a comparatively small percentage of the public's attention. We tend to think that story readers were ubiquitous perhaps based on the impact these books made on the public mind and in the marketplace of ideas. Not everybody in Russia, where a vast mass of illiterates made their homes, read Tolstoy. This was true in every country where what we have come to know as the classics were published. Even in our country, the fame of such novelists as Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and others could not be based on numbers when calculated as a percentage of public readership.

Surely a definition of a reader should be applied to the great best seller of all time, the Bible, whose Old and New Testaments continue to outsell all books everywhere. It is, indeed, one of the great novels ever written whether one believes it is divinely inspired or not. Then there is the Koran, which I suppose has its own novelistic elements as well as books that form the foundation of other religions. Did Jobs mean that the Bible, too, fails to attract readers? I doubt it.

The fact is that one element of our world is unchanging, human nature. Man's search for knowing, for insight into the mysteries of the universe, for unraveling life's dilemmas, for the meaning of love, of good and evil and the myriad "why's" and "how comes" that mystify us in our short moment on the planet. As near as I can tell, that search for meaning has sprung out of the creative imagination of those who have taken the trouble to write down in words the narrative of the human condition.

And, to my mind, no one yet has invented a better way to convey that narrative than through stories, whether these stories were told orally, then on stones and parchment, morphing into paper, and now on screens. It is true that content can be conveyed through visual and musical means often with great emotional impact, but it is words that hands down dominate the mind's power to communicate intellectually.

In a sense reading, even by Mr. Jobs' definition, has always been a niche category. Try counting the number of people reading books on airplanes, trains, buses, and other public conveyances. The numbers are infinitesimal and indicative of a substantial minority. On the other hand visit libraries and bookstores, websites, cafes, and other venues where readers congregate, including those who get their literary fixes on convenient portable digital devises like the Kindle and the SONY reader. Walk the length of the book convention sites from Los Angeles to Peking, from Frankfort to Sidney, and you will marvel at the numbers of purveyors satisfying the demand of readers.

From the beginning of time, there have always been "readers." Some people, not all, will never slake their thirst for reading stories. Even after hell freezes over, which, by the way, makes for an interesting story some of us might want to read some day.

Warren Adler's thirtieth book Funny Boys will be published in March. He is the author of The War of the Roses and Random Hearts.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Hurry to enter Second Annual Warren Adler Short Story Contest

Hurry Before It's Too Late! Only 1 Week Left to Submit Your Short Story. January 15th is the deadline for submission to the Second Annual Warren Adler Short Story Contest. It is inspirational to see the numerous submissions and the high quality work exhibited by the writers. Those of you who have works in progress have one week to send in your submission to beat the deadline. See rules and submission guidelines at Five finalists will be announced shortly, and readers will vote during February for their favorite. First Place and People's Choice will be announced in March at a "live" Second Life event. First prize is $1,000 and publication on Amazon Shorts; People's Choice will also be published on Amazon Shorts, and all five finalists will be awarded personalized first editions of Mr. Adler's collection, New York Echoes: Short Stories.