Myth of the Manic Artist

26 Aug

A little girl with a little curl sits in the middle of her little bed. She writes and she writes, she rages, she cries. She takes things to make the sky the color of a warm fuzzy peach, and stays up for days, the pen trailing neon through the night.

The little girl with the curl would then collapse, spent and sad, moving little, sluggish from the bed, her muse, her voice stolen, locked in her wrists! How dare they steal her song!

The little girl shied away from the doctors, from the talkers, from the big people who looked down and knew her for what she was. She ran from them, even as she hurt, her song more important, the beauty they would steal, it was MORE important! It’s technicolor loveliness so achingly perfect.

Then something happened. The little girl hit a wall, and the colors left. Her world, baring a few hours, a day here and there, dribbled down to greys and blacks, muted landscapes about her. That world narrowed, constricted, wrapped around her. The words stopped. They weren’t easy anymore. They weren’t there.

Then, the bad time. When it all turned black and the words turned against her and walked echoing through her head, accusingly. The ghost in her eyes very nearly came true. The ghost who stole her words.

The world compressed, and seized, wrapped her in it’s hands and throttled.  She glared back, the little curl refusing this last gift to it, this little girl. The black world receded, pouting, recoiling from the gift in her hands, the light brought to the darkness.

The little girl with the little curl climbed back up on that bed, pen in hand, to work, to find her voice. She smiles there.


Nothing irritates me more than the cult of the myth of the manic artist. Nothing, not even people more concerned with purses than the news or the overabundance of olives at sub shops.

I recently had this conversation with a friend, or rather, I had a snarky monologue prepared.  Any talents I had, or have, were never because of my manic depression. They have never been a gift of my perspective.

This is the line many people will sell you-that Kurt Cobain wouldn’t have had the same voice without whatever was supposedly wrong in his head, Van Gogh wouldn’t have been so brilliant. We would have lost so much.

Which always makes me wonder-do artists have an unknown debt to society no one has told me about anyway?

Perhaps being sick in my head makes me more willing to speak about it, more willing to sit and look at my condition, at everyone’s condition. But it’s never made me more talented-if anything, since I am NOT blessed with extended periods of mania, it’s taken any talents I may have and widdled them down to nearly nothing. Only now, medicated, do I begin to approach a place of clear and pure creativity I never once came near before, even during the one longish manic period I hit. My writing has never been enhanced by my crazy. Not once.

I’ve run into people who wish they were bipolar, that then they would write/sing/paint/etc better, that they would suddenly have some oracle into another world. But it’s not the case. There is nothing magical about this crazy, nothing that will enhance who and what you write for, or sing for. There’s a cold empty in it’s place, devoid of energy.

10 years ago I would have just assumed I had nothing left to say. Before that, I would have said I was writing brilliantly. Looking back, I was writing total crap. I just thought it was brilliant.

But should the tradeoff be my brilliance for my stability, if my madness was linked to my creativity? Should I toss my lithium down the river in the hopes that 2 half started novels might suddenly jump into life? Should I sacrifice my life for my muse, for any muse? What price life?

When we spend lives hiding who we are, the thought that we’re only valid when acting as something supersonic, this perfect being who spouts eloquence and beauty, don’t we become just another cliche? Don’t we become less than human then, shoved to the corner as another ideal that someone likes to keep in play?

I am not an ideal.

12 Responses to “Myth of the Manic Artist”

  1. flutter August 27, 2009 at 12:35 am #

    I often wish I wasn’t an artist so that my brain would cooperate.

  2. daisybones August 27, 2009 at 8:03 am #

    Hmm. Very interesting, this debate. Why don’t we discuss mental illness from the perspective that the human mind is bogglingly complex and that no one movement or school of thought can fit? There is no one blueprint for a bipolar brain or depressive brain or creative brain.

    It’s just so ridiculous to think clear cut answers exist. Yes, there seems to be a correlation between mental illnesses and creativity, but we don’t have to like divide up into Worship Teh Madness and Drug the Weirdos camps. I’m all about overlapping spectrums here.

    As far as the creative madness thing… have you seen Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED lecture? It sort of fits here.

  3. thordora August 27, 2009 at 10:16 am #

    I suppose from my point of view, the constant implication that I should be grateful formy mental illness, that it makes me some sort of higher form of human or some such nonsense-it tires me. The message reinforced in many places that medicating equates destroying any type of creative voice-the only voice it quiets is the constant one whispering that I need to die.

    I don’t see any of this as a gift-it’s too difficult and too painful many times. I’d like to think that my own brand of creative, my viewpoint and my sight would be intact without the murmuring voices demanding my life.

  4. Marcy August 27, 2009 at 10:27 am #

    I tend to think my creativity and my depression and anxiety have a common root, more than that either causes or enhances the other. I’m sensitive, willful, and intense — all three have positives and negatives. I’m willing to take medicine since I seem to need it, but I only want enough of a dose to keep me within a functional range — not enough to damp all feeling and thought, not even enough to get rid of all the depression — just enough to keep me out of the pit.

  5. bromac August 27, 2009 at 11:57 am #

    The first time I was exposed to this idea, and subsequently infuriated, was when I read the book by Jameson. I was livid. It really enrages me that this madness is portrayed as some gift. There is nothing about this that is a gift except to possibly survive it without offing yourself.

    Anyone who “wishes” to be bipolar is ignorant and maybe needs to be given one episode of depression and mania and then maybe they’ll shut their mouths and consider themselves lucky.

  6. Cheeky Monkey August 27, 2009 at 2:56 pm #

    I’ve thought about this a bit. There’s a part of me that buys into the urban legend that says that artists create because they *must*. But then I read a book like The Book Thief and read the author’s words about how much fucking, back-breaking hard work it was to get it right (and how right he got it), not about his muse, his crazy inspiration, but about writing and writing and writing it over. And then I wonder if the ones who are all up for dying for their art don’t count as much as we’d like them to. Or as much as they’d like themselves to.

    • thordora August 27, 2009 at 8:50 pm #

      I’d love to buy into it. It would be AWESOME. But true work-artistic or otherwise-it’s work. When I sit down to get something done, even if it starts with a dream or a song or a bit of sunlight, it’s STILL work and damn hard work. Nothing comes easier. If anything, it’s even more difficult-I have the attention span of a gnat, I have trouble forming thoughts, my memory is crap.

      There’s also this driving need to make mental illness some sort of godlike status-if we can’t integrate, then dammit, they will become god, they must be SPECIAL.

      It’s work. Just like any population, some are blessed with talent, some aren’t, some might stab the neighbour. Why are those of us with mood disorders thought to be so different than joe public?

      I must read that book.

  7. Aurelia August 28, 2009 at 1:08 am #

    Yeah, there are some people who view ADD/ADHD the same way, and I find it seriously irritating as well.

    Like I’m supposed to put up with a higher risk of drowning, car accidents, general walking down the street injuries, impulsive and inappropriate speech, etc ,etc, all so I can be the floaty artistic daydreamy whatever the hell type they want in society?

    Whenever I hear about these higher powers and strengths I’m supposed to be celebrating, I know they mean it well, like this is how we’ll engender self-esteem and turn a negative into a positive, but really, it just makes me feel like more of a freak.

    I prefer to take medication and just go live my life and be happy cause I’m able to get things done and not hurt myself.

    • thordora August 28, 2009 at 8:15 pm #

      I’ve never found it turned a negative into a positive. If anything, the constant pressure and message that I must be even MORE of a fuck up if I can’t become someone’s messiah and creative wonderchild……it’s too much.

      I always find it funny that you sometimes here people saying that shaman and mystics could have been mentally ill, and what a wonderful thing. I suppose no one ever stops to think that the only way to BE crazy in societies has been to become those people. Normality-that’s not allowed. And apparently, not even something a person should aspire to.

      Maybe I’m simpleminded, but days where I’m filled with nothing but happiness and love for my family-those are my muse and magic, and they’re only courtesy of those little pills.

  8. Kay August 28, 2009 at 4:05 pm #

    I would never credit my creativity, my ability to write, to my mania. While I find myself unable to write while in the darkness of a deep depression… that is the depression. If I manage to find a stable ground for some stretch of time, my writing is just as good (if not better) as when I’m hypomanic. Because along with that mania comes that inability to concentrate, that flitting from one thought to the next, from one task to another. I may have some good ideas, but lack the focus and discipline to turn them into anything more.
    I’ve wondered, though. Is it more the endurance that people are crediting than the mania? Sleep, food, normal daily needs fall to the sidelines when I’m manic.

    • thordora August 28, 2009 at 8:15 pm #

      I can’t get anything done. It’s like writing with a pen on the tip of a vibrator.

  9. Marcy August 29, 2009 at 4:13 pm #

    Oh look! Another one!

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