In this week's post I'd like to examine the stereotype of writers as tortured geniuses. It's a cliché, but one backed up by life. Examples of tormented authors abound; take Sylvia Plath, author of 'The Bell Jar', who was clinically depressed for most of her adult life and committed suicide in 1963. Or Ernest Hemingway, renowned for his hard drinking and womanising, who shot and killed himself. Jack London, Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell - the list goes on, and it's a long and unhappy one.
A recent study found that, with the exception of bipolar disorder, creative types are no more likely to suffer psychiatric problems than anyone else. Apart from writers, that is. We're more disposed, it seems, towards depression and schizophrenia. More prone to committing suicide, too. Here's the link to an NHS report on the study: Study looks at creativity link with mental illness.
As someone interested in the workings of the brain, I find this fascinating, and frustrating that the study didn't identify possible reasons. I'm fortunate in that I've always enjoyed good mental health; I've blogged before about how I don't use my fiction as a catharsis for my demons, because those pesky little devils are few and far between. I'm aware, though, that other authors are different. Take my writing idol, Stephen King. I can't find the link, but I remember reading that he uses his fiction, especially his earlier works, to resolve childhood issues. He's also a writer who has battled alcoholism and drug addiction. In addition, at least one writer friend uses her books to resolve personal angst.
I suspect certain genres lend themselves as avenues for exploring one's malaise. It's no coincidence that not many emotionally tortured writers have penned light romances or children's books. King's preference for writing horror and supernatural fiction is a great example. My own genre, psychological suspense, certainly lends itself to examining the darker side of life, but (thank God!) the events in my books have never featured in my own experience. If writing is cathartic, though, shouldn't authors be less, not more, prone to mental health issues? Or perhaps, for some people, it helps a little but their issues run deeper than fiction can heal. Who knows?
My conviction is that our minds are far more complex than we can understand, at present anyway. And other creative professions, such as art and music, are by no means exempt - Van Gogh and Nick Drake, anyone? Take a recent study conducted by Help Musicians UK, which found that over 60% of musicians suffer some form of mental health issue. Such problems can affect anyone, at any age, whatever their profession. Despite what the survey found, I'm not sure they're linked to creativity.
What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know!