The Creative Mind and Mental Health

Why is the public-at-large so adverse to people with mental illness?  Perhaps because of the darker side of humanity.  Some heinous crimes are committed by people who are mentally ill.  Those individuals are but a speck of dust in the overall population of people with mental illness, yet they get the most publicity due to their deeds. It is time to change the perception.

There are a host of creative and brilliant authors that suffered from mental illness and some created their best work while under the influence of the “dark.”   Following is a short burst of 7 Authors who committed (or rumoured to have committed) suicide due to depression or mental illness.

Earnest Hemmingway, perhaps the best-known author associated with suicide, sank into depression when his literary friends started to pass away, and his family suffered a series of unfortunate accidents, one leaving his son Patrick with a brain injury and mentally ill.  Hemmingway was instituted several times and endured electrotherapy. 

There is a historic debate as to whether he had committed suicide.  He was of very ill health and had extreme pain after a hip replacement.  He also suffered long-lasting effects of several exotic illnesses he contracted while he was abroad. Due to these situations, he had morphine available to him.  Some think it was self-inflicted, others an accident.  Either way, Hemingway known for his love of alcohol, smoke, and food was depressed, and yet wrote the most fantastical stories and poems.  My favorite- “The Old Man and the Sea.”  If by now you have not read that great piece of poetry, please look it up and enjoy.

At the age of 59, Virginia Woolf put rocks in her pockets and waded out into the River Ouse.  Drowning herself.  Her best-known works are “Orlando,” “Mrs. Dalloway” and “To the Lighthouse.”  She has become more famous in death than in life, as have most brilliant writers.  She had a mental breakdown early in life due to the death of her mother, and then a few years later, her step-sister who she looked upon as a mother-like figure.    She was instituted several times for severe depression and had episodes that today would be likened to Bi-Polar I disorder.  Unfortunately, there was no medication that treated these illnesses at that time in history.  She too suffered through several electrotherapy appointments.

Sylvia Plath won a posthumous Pulitzer for her collection of poems, “The Colossus and Other Poems” and “Ariel.”  She is also well known for her semi-autobiographical book “The Bell Jar.” She is one of the United States greatest writers. It is said, she told her downstairs neighbor to call the doctor right before she put her head in the oven and turned on the gas in 1963.  She was clinically depressed most of her life and had been institutionalized, again with several treatments of electroshock therapy.

John Kennedy Toole, a man who was unable to escape the apron strings of his domineering mother, who was always pushing him into the public eye when he was, in fact, a quiet introvert. 

He is best known for his comedy “A Confederacy of Dunces,” winning him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981. His manuscript was continually rejected by publishers as an uninteresting piece of literature while he was living.  These rejections are the catalyst for his delusions of persecution and depression.  Later it would develop into paranoia (Paranoid Personality Disorder). He was sure he was being followed and that someone was going to steal his manuscript, even though he had put it in a cupboard sure it was a failure. This paranoia led to even more bizarre behavior as his mental health deteriorated.    On March 26, 1969, at the age of 32, he drove to a secluded area and ran a garden hose from his exhaust to his car window.  Killing himself by carbon monoxide poisoning.  His mother found the manuscript and had it published in 1980. (no doubt the industry had matured since the 1960’s) It sold over 1.5 million copies and was printed in 18 different languages. 

After spending a year on the road with the Hells Angels, Hunter S. Thompson wrote his best-selling book “Hells Angels.”  He was loved by many of the Hollywood elites (his best friend being Johnny Depp who paid for Thompsons unusual memorial- blowing his ashes from a cannon).  Hunter who was suffering from depression over his advanced age, medical problems and according to his suicide note, the end of the football season; shot himself in the head on February 20, 2005.

The last two authors, both coming under the same “was it suicide” scrutiny as Mr. Hemmingway, are Jack London, the innovator for a genre later to be known as science fiction, and Percy Shelly (who happens to be a personal favourite) known best for his poem “The Spirit of Solitude”.  My favourite poem by Shelly- “Love’s Philosophy”:

The fountains mingle with the river,
And the rivers with the ocean;
The winds of heaven mix forever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle-
Why not I with thine?

See, the mountains kiss high heaven,
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister flower could be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea; –
What are all this sweet work worth,
If thou kiss not me.”

Mental illness is an overall name for 4 major syndromes:  Bi-Polar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Autism and Personality Disorders.  There are many spectrums to each of these major syndromes, and these syndromes overlap with each other.  Some are common amongst family members who shared emotinal trauma, while others are an unlucky parental lottery of DNA.  Mental illness is not a choice.  It is caused by an imbalance of naturally existing chemicals and hormones in the brain. Sometimes it is situational. An example of situational depression is extreme stress. Stress will cause a chemical imbalance in the brain.  When the stress is relieved, the brain will usually go back to normal function. The imbalance of brain chemistry can also be the result of head trauma.

With the recent increase in entertainment personalities committing suicide, I think it is important that the dialogue start.  I believe the best people to start this discussion are those who have been afflicted. 

Mental illness disorders run in my family. Most notably, Bi-Polar disorder. This spectrum also includes depression.  All my family members have a degree of depression.  A few of us have Bi-Polar disorder.  When people hear Bi-Polar, they immediately think of the hyper-mania which causes bizarre behaviour and depression so horrible that suicide is contemplated.  The highest of highs and the lowest of lows.  Bi-Polar II has fewer manic episodes and longer lasting depressive episodes.  Bi-Polar II episodes are not as severe as Bi-Polar I.   I have been diagnosed with Bi-Polar II. 

I feel strongly about wiping out the mental illness stigma.  My circle of support exists because I am not afraid to educate people about my situation.  I do not feel ashamed.  I do not want pity.  I do not want sympathy.  I want understanding.  Mostly, I want people to understand that mental illness is not a choice.  Do not think that if we force ourselves to smile that happiness will follow.  That certainly did not work for the late Robin Williams. 

While some people who do criminal acts may have a mental illness, not all people with mental illness do criminal acts.  Many in fact are creative geniuses, some people would argue because of their mental illness.

 In large, we are not bad people.  We are people who want to be accepted, not ignored.

Alice’s future – through the looking glass

Creativity will be the valued commodity of the future.

No-one has to be a rocket scientist to realise that the world is changing at a phenomenal rate. While many of the underlying principles we learnt at school continue to be relevant what we do with that knowledge has changed. We are looking at a future where creativity across all disciplines will be a valued commodity.

This is especially relevant for writers.

Success relies on writers ability to create new concepts and works of the imagination.

Logic underpins our most admired inventions. This is especially so for robots and technology. What technology’s ascendancy has done, however, is to throw a curve ball at us all because all those jobs, created by the application of logic are becoming redundant. Robots are taking over the mehanical jobs that are driven by logic.

Now creativity and soft skills, once seen as less important, are rising in importance. Creativity and humanity will become the valued commodity because human emotion is the thread that sets humans apart from machines.

The ability to tap into the vein of insight we all have but which is often covered by the clutter of everyday life will be encouraged and valued.

Over the summer period (winter in the Northern hemisphere) I took a step back and read two excellent books. These two books discussed the qualities that will create success in the21st century.

The first was 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari, and the other was The Code of the Extraordinary Mind by Vishen Lakhiani.

For a writer what these two authors say is exciting. Navigating through the shift in emphasis from logic to creative will be demanding. However, writers should find this relatively easy because their work is creative, whether it is fiction or non-fiction.

Yuval Noah Harari makes it clear that artificial intelligence will create new jobs while making others redundant. Medical diagnostics will be replaced by robots but the people who manage the robots will be highly skilled and in demand.

Similar shifts will occur across all industries and we, as writers, need to think about how that applies to our world. Artificial intelligence may analyse big data sets to create stories but that is probably not on the urgent shopping list of those people solving world problems.

Machines can analyse more data than any human ever will, but who sets the parameters of the analysis? People.

The skills the world will need in the future are those that relate to human emotion and understanding.

Harari makes this distinction in his book.

“Intelligence is the ability to solve problems; consciousness is the ability to feel things — pain, hate, love, pleasure.” Yuval Noah Harari.

Writers who tap into the human quality of being able to feel will prosper.

Kurt Vonnegut said: “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

We engage readers by encouraging them to empathise with our characters and their journeys. We all relate to people who overcome obstacles in magnificent ways. That is life.

So, rather than becoming downhearted by the number of books coming onto the market due to the digitisation of publishing, see how you can create powerful characters whose fortunes readers want to follow.

Sources:

Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (London: Jonathan Cape, 2018).

Creativity – is it important?

Is creativity important? Ask any writer frantically juggling work and home commitments with finding time to write and they will say, creativity is as essential as breathing.’

The importance of acknowledging the need to express ourselves creatively was brought home to me when a member of The Story Mint, who had not written for a while, contacted us with a chapter for her story. In her message she wrote, “It feels fantastic to be writing again.”

She went on to explain that until she found time to write she was close to exploding .

The energy that drives us to create is undeniable. If we do not take time to be creative whether it is as a writer or in some other way, something tightens up inside.

Being creative is part of being alive.

The obvious forms of creativity are in the arts but there are many forms of creativity – a setting up a new business is intensely creative for example.

Thomas Merton says, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”

Any project that takes us into another world where we find new truths and discover new insights is a creative process.

“To send light into the darkness of men’s [and women’s] hearts – such is the duty of the artist,” says the great composer Robert Schumann.*

Artistic expression is the engine that drives creativity and what we produce can lighten a saddened heart or reveal a truth others had not considered.

This is the absolute importance of creativity…it challenges and informs. The reason our writer from The Story Mint thought she was going to burst if she didn’t write was because something within her demanded expression. If left ignored, that need would have mutated.

“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his [her] life, every quality of his [her] mind, is written large in his [her] works.” Virginia Woolf.*

And why does no expression of creativity exactly copy someone else’s? Because every person’s stories is unique. The way we express that story is also unique and because of that every story lights up a part of the world in a special way. Our creativity is our link to the past and our vision of the future. We intuitively tap into that when we express ourselves creatively.

Sometimes finding time to write is really difficult. Life takes over and fills the days. However, this is what I do… I allocate a day (Sunday in my case) for writing and I do nothing else. That way, my brain switches over from work mode to writing and all distractions are parked to one side.

Do you think creativity is important?

Suraya Dewing
Chief Executive Officer and Founder

The Story Mint
http://www.thestorymint.com



The Smell of Smoke

The smell of smoke, the loud hiss of steam
Images of a 2-6-4 hurtle through boyhood dream
Wheels clatter on points, the steam whistle blows
The fireman stokes furnace; drivers face all aglow
Trees beckon as countryside flashes from sight
Children playing, stop and scream with delight
So many memories of journeys by steam
Old man closes eyes and hugs boyhood dream

Where did they go, those Great Western trains
Each with its own particular name
There was Mallard, Scotsman, even Elaine
Stopping all stations or a fast through train
Spitting hot water and hissing with steam
Driver and fireman working hard as a team
Clickety-clacking along miles of line
Alas, they’re no more, a great memory in time

Searching for Inspiration

Although the history of both Malta and Cyprus islands spans thousands of years, it is Cyprus that reveals its story without fanfare. Historical education is more a way of a gradual realization as the new inhabitant merges into the Cypriot way of life and culture; a culture that has grown hand in hand with religion and a mixture of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and British influence. The island has been inhabited since the Paleolithic era, and ancient ruins are scattered all over Cyprus, mainly Greek, Roman and Byzantine. After four years I have visited many digs, mostly Roman and two that are still active. There are several others in the planning stage.  

I have been involved in the arts and writing all my life.  Writing locations have been many and varied from family home to small flat and shared accommodation, both in the UK and abroad. When I retired, I decided to move from Washington State, USA to Malta. I had always wanted to live somewhere in the Mediterranean area. Malta, at the western end of the Med, proved too noisy and far too overcrowded, so after two years I moved to Cyprus, the eastern end of the Med. The difference between the two islands has been amazing.

My own introduction into modern Cypriot life commenced shortly after I came to live here. I was sitting next to a pool at a small village hotel when the landlord’s mother, a small woman with the most beautiful smile, came to me and in a soft voice welcomed me to the island and gave me two oranges. This is the traditional way to greet someone into the community. I have never forgotten this courteous gesture. It moved me a lot, and since that moment four years ago, I have come to love the people here and their way of life.

Outside the main cities of Limassol, Nicosia, and Paphos, the island is mainly an agricultural way of life. The people, mostly working class, are hardworking and days start in the early hours to avoid a baking sun in the spring and summer. Most shops and business’ are closed for the afternoon and reopen around four. Although a slow pace of life, the land produces an enormous amount of products including wine, bananas, all kinds of fruit and vegetables and the worlds best olive oil.

As a writer, I have never been as busy as now. Surrounded by an industrious people and living in a warm climate where healthy food remains as mother nature intended, I am continually motivated to write. Whether it be visiting a village or an ancient dig, I am inspired from one day to the next. Roman columns and beautiful mosaic floors fill me with awe. I have leaned on columns and stepped on a Roman villa bath floor, wondering what the person looked like who leaned against the same column and whose footsteps I was following in the bathhouse. Inspiration is a wonderful thing, and I have found an unlimited amount here. Tourists are beginning to flock here each year but mainly to shoreline beaches and the Troodos mountains and forest. I may be a little biased, but although I think the public should visit the historical sites, I hope they do not rush too much at the moment.