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Genius, Creativity, Depression and Insanity

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No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.

I've often heard it said that there is a thin line between genius and insanity, but I don't think this metaphor really does the concept justice. The line which the speaker refers to is really more of a tightrope. Madness and depression lie below, the rope itself represents dedication and true genius is what the man or woman walking the rope reaches up towards. It is the fruit of the creative thoughts which the acrobat (whether genius or lunatic) reaches for which keeps his or her tightrope taunt by providing them a reason to strive to become better.

Nevertheless, some forms of emotional distress are more common among writers, artists and musicians. Serious depression strikes artists ten times more often than it does the general population. The link, however, is not creativity. Artists are more likely to be self-reflective and to ruminate, to mull things over. And that thinking style—as opposed to creativity itself—is a hallmark of depression and commonly leads to it.

In other words, the artist is constantly relating everything they experience to their art and constantly working things out in the back of their mind. It is my understanding that a true artist never puts down their pen, but holds it firmly in their off-hand as they do their daily business. This is certainly true in my life, and I think it is safe to infer that it is true in the lives of all artists.

Thus, insanity comes not through creativity, but through redundancy. The madness is in the search for things which could be done better, and the willingness to accept that nothing is perfect, "not even myself". I don't believe an artist can ever be finished with a work. They must simply abandon it when it no longer provides them further benefit. I think this because I recognize that the artist is constantly growing and changing, and thus their work must grow and change (and someday die) as well.

It is simply not practical to work on a piece indefinitely, and so, at some point, the artist must abandon their child, sending a dead corpse out into the world, where it will hopefully be picked up by a reader or viewer, and restored to life by the mind(s) of a larger audience.

As far as I can tell, creativity is less about creation and more about connection. It's about seeing the links between concepts. "The stitches binding thing to thing." 90% of art is the ugly, painful work that supports the beautiful product which the audience ends up seeing. It's not fun; it's not interesting. But, it must be done if one wishes to see his or her creation come to life. And therein, lies the madness.

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Updated 10-27-2010 at 12:05 AM by sexyfunkymonkie

Out of Character/Non-Fiction


  1. Ao's Avatar
    The self reflection is certainly something that leads to depression amongst those that claim to be artists. I think part of my own problem in sitting down and getting creative is that I don't try hard enough to 'put myself' into things I do.

    When I create, lately it has seemed mechanical. There's no heart in it, just the effort.

    I never thought I'd see such profoundness coming from your fingertips SFM... nice writeup.
  2. Alexander Tau's Avatar
    Very impressive. Not quite my own point of view but I agree with most of your points.

    I feel the job of the Artist is to show people Truth. We present interpretations and not-always-subtle things that illustrate some aspect of the human condition. If I wish to comment on the horrors of War I will not just talk about it I will create a Story or a Game. Through reading/playing others see what I have seen.

    True Artists cannot hide from the Truth. We try instead to see things as they really are. This World can quite often be very ugly. For every good deed done by a decient person it seems there are 3 horrible things to balance it out.

    In my experience most people live their lives in a bubble of false rationalizations. If something does not directly impact THEIR life it is easy to ignore.
  3. sexyfunkymonkie's Avatar
    I don't think that really contradicts what I'm saying. I certainly agree that there can be truth in art. As Allen Moore wrote in V for Vendetta "Artists use lies to tell the truth." For me, writing is about expressing the brightest and darkest parts of both myself and looking at some aspect of our world from a unique perspective. While I often do so through a metaphoric (or even symbolic) style, the message beneath much of my fiction is no less honest.

    I sometimes think of characters as vehicles for exploration. They offer a unique point of view; through their experiences, the reader is able to see the world in a new way, and hopefully gain a deeper understanding of life.

    (but kick me if I ever use the phrase "human condition" )