Creativity is both a gift and a curse. Few things can give the surge of adrenaline and euphoria that fills us when we fashion something unique and satisfying. That’s the gift. The struggle takes place when we strive and fail, when our creations don’t measure up to our standards or when the public rejects them.
How did we become creative to begin with? Were we born this way? Are creative people just smarter than the average guy on the street? Are some artists more prone to a specific mental illness than others? Let’s try to answer those questions.
The correlation between "madness" and "genius" dates back to Aristotle. Famous writers and artists who committed suicide, include Ernest Hemingway, who shot himself; Virginia Woolf, who drowned herself; composer Robert Schumann, who died in a mental institution; and Sylvia Plath, who poisoned herself by inhaling carbon monoxide from her kitchen oven. These are just a few of the artists who have killed themselves. The list is long.
In his 1936 essay, The Crack-Up, F. Scott Fitzgerald described his own battles with depression and alcoholism. He wasn't alone. Four years earlier, German psychiatrist Wilhelm Lang-Eichbaum examined 800 "geniuses," and found that they were more likely to suffer "nervous tensions" than the general population.
Within the last decade, researchers have found a creative person’s brain really is different. Some people tend to lose language and logical reasoning when they experience a stroke on the left side of their brains, but, strangely, they often become more creative.
Neurologist Marcus Raichle in 2001 identified the brain’s default mode network or “the imagination network,” which involves the frontal, parietal and temporal lobes. But the creative spark isn’t confined to one side of the brain, as some people believe. It works with the parts of the brain that control memory and attention.
One discovery researchers have made is that creativity does not correlate with IQ. A reasonable degree of intelligence is required but that alone doesn’t make you creative.
The Journal of Psychiatric Research in 2012 published an exhaustive study titled "Mental Illness, Suicide, And Creativity: 40-Year Prospective Total Population Study." Swedish researchers studied 1.2 million Swedish patients from the country’s national registry and compared this sample against the entire Swedish population. Overall, creative professionals were about 8% more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder than the general population.
But here’s the really bad news for writers! They are 121% more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder than the general population. Moreover, Simon Kyaga, the study’s lead researcher, says that authors had a "statistically significant increase" (38 percent) in anxiety disorder. Rates of alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide also were higher among writers.
In 2005, a study of 30 writers from the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop were compared with 30 people of similar IQ and educational advancement. The writers, and their close relatives had significantly more mood disorders than the controls, according to Donald W. Goodwin, MD, who wrote a book on the subject.
Yet, oddly, artists in general have a healthier self-awareness and curiosity than normal and are most productive during healthy periods.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow and Creativity and an observer of creative people for more than 30 years, wrote, “Creative individuals are remarkable for their ability to adapt to almost any situation and to make do with whatever is at hand to reach their goals. If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it's complexity.”
Csikszentmihalyi also maintains, “When we're creative we feel we are living more fully than during the rest of life. The excitement of the artist at the easel or the scientist in the lab comes close to the ideal fulfillment we all hope to get from life, and so rarely do.”
While the upside of creativity can be euphoria or a prolonged state of “flow,” the downside is too often depression. Many artists reject medication because they’re afraid their creativity will dry up. As a writer who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder about twenty years ago, I’m familiar with the rollercoaster ride. I have been medicated successfully since then. Whether mood stabilizers and antidepressants have affected my creativity, I can’t say but I’d never go back to the dark side.
A Harvard study shows that 85% of creativity is a learned skill. You actually can increase your creativity, but certain conditions are necessary.
1. You need a prolonged quantity of time to work on your project. We do our best when we’re in a state of “flow” or “in the zone,” that time when you’re able to shut out the world and focus completely on your task or challenge. When a writer’s words seem to stream effortlessly from her mind onto the page and she’s so focused on her goal she loses track of time, she is in a state of flow. An athlete can achieve the same conditions when he’s performing at his best. The basketball player who can’t seem to miss is said to be “in the zone.” Interruptions can cause artists and athletes to lose that state of mind.
2. You must do your homework. To get to that feeling of flow, you must immerse yourself in the skills and knowledge that will help you achieve your goal.
3. Observe your surroundings in a deeper way. Make yourself aware of how you use the five senses, especially in writing. If you include taste, sound, sight, smell and touch in your scenes, readers will be able to visualize them and will connect with your characters.
4. Albert Bandura, a trailblazer in social cognitive theory and one of the most influential psychologists of the last century, believes that truly creative people must have self-efficacy. He describes those people as having “high assurance in their capabilities to approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided.” In other words, you must believe in yourself and your abilities.
5. You must stretch yourself, always aiming toward that next level of accomplishment above your current level.
6. You must be curious, unconventional and willing to take risks. You must cultivate self-awareness, open yourself to different strategies, think outside the box and always persist. At times you will fail, but you learn from your failure until you attain your “personal best” or something in this world that’s entirely new. Very, very few people are overnight successes. They experience rejection, and some artists such as Vincent Van Gogh die before their genius is ever recognized.
7. Train yourself to generate new ideas on a daily basis. Make it habit-forming.
8. One last tip but the best one of all: daydream as often as possible.