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Posts tagged ‘insanity’

Living the edges

Blame Sarah. Her post yesterday started me thinking on this line, and anything that gets me thinking moderately philosophical thoughts is dangerous.

Anyway, as Sarah said yesterday, madness and creativity are pretty closely intertwined. Very few highly creative types don’t argue with some form of mental illness, and frankly, once the intelligence levels get high enough, the same kind of thing happens. Our species seems to be built to design specs with a caveat in big flaming letters “Extremes are Bad Things” (Yes, evolution will in fact do this. Extreme anything is bad. Moderation in all things, including moderation, appears to be the way to go). At any rate, moving too far from the averages, whether creativity-wise or in terms of intelligence, almost always introduces a bunch of negative effects.

There’s a “sweet spot” in the order of about 1 to 2 statistical deviations above the norm. In that range, whatever it is is good enough to help the fortunate possessor without introducing much in the way of nasty side effects. In the realm of intelligence, this is where the people ordinary joes consider bright are found. Beyond that a person gets to be in a realm where they can’t understand normal people, and no-one outside their very small group of mental peers can understand them. With creativity it tends to be even more marked – mildly more creative than usual often looks a lot more impressive than extremely more than usual because at the extreme there’s not much there an average person can recognize. This is why stunningly new things usually take a long time to get adopted. They’ve got to trickle down through the not-quite-so-extremely-creative to be translated into something that the not-particularly-creative can relate to.

When the ability is so strongly linked to insanity, well, that just makes it even more interesting.

My personal theory – I’m fairly sure I’ve mentioned it here in the past (yeah, says the inner editor, like once or twice a week. The inner editor is a demon, and lies.) – is that the essence of creativity is in pattern recognition and generalization. The more someone can observe patterns across fields of thought or practice that rarely intersect, the more creative their observations are going to be. When the patterns and fields of thought pillage mythology, legend, and every work of fiction ever, that’s a heck of a lot of ground to cover. Take someone who doesn’t have the normal “this is socially acceptable” filters (I’m intimately familiar with this), and you’ll get high-octane nightmare fuel played for laughs (a.k.a. the con vampire books). Add that to a subconscious that actively collects all of this and then spits out the shiny “Ooh! Story!”, and you get what Sarah described with A Few Good Men (which is totally worth any amount of money you choose to spend on it. Just saying).

It’s fragile, to say the least. In my case the wrong choice of music can shut me down for days. Of course, if I get a nasty shock, I can tip straight back to suicidal, so I don’t count myself as particularly stable anyway. Of the several flavors of antidepressant I’ve taken, I’ve only found one that leaves the writing ability more or less intact. Not surprisingly, I’m not that keen to experiment any further. I’m not aware of antihistamines shutting me down, although any form of physical illness does a number on me, so it may simply be that the effect is masked by not being well enough to think.

Of course, being narcoleptic, I’ve got the advantage of very vivid dreams, including some that happen without me needing to actually be asleep. Those are usually the trippiest, probably because I experience them direct, without any kind of “remembering the dream” filters. The flip side is that the medication for that takes me from permanently functioning as if I’ve just come off a 48 hour shift to functioning as if I’ve just come off an all-nighter. I don’t actually remember what “awake” feels like. Curiously enough, I describe exhaustion rather well…

In my view, it’s all input towards whatever the next story happens to involve. Or the one after that. Whatever works.

I think that’s possibly where all the research on creativity, intelligence, and mental illness has gaps: the focus tends to be on the ones who can’t keep their grip on the world their body lives in. The ones who figure out what works for them and can keep hold of the physical world when the worlds of the mind are calling so seductively mostly manage to slide past under the social radar. Most of us prefer it that way.

Of course, most of us would also deny the hell out of any evidence we were losing our grip. And therein lies its own set of nightmare fuel.

Madness, Stress, and the Writer

It’s something of a truism that if writers aren’t crazy when they enter the field, they will be before long. There are any number of reasons for this, but probably the biggest is that a huge chunk of the fiction writer’s art consists of imaging people that never existed, places that never existed, and events that never happened, all in enough detail that the writer can believe they’re all real.

After doing this, and effectively bringing this otherworld to life, fiction writers have to disconnect from their world enough to evaluate their craft in writing down what they created – and if that wasn’t enough, disconnect even more so that it’s not utterly devastating when someone doesn’t like their work.

There are – of course – equivalents for non-fiction writers, musicians, artists, and all the other creative fields. I just don’t know what they are.

At any rate, this particular mental exercise ends up being functionally schizophrenic, except that the voices in one’s head are telling stories rather than giving orders. Most of the fiction writers I know effectively write the stories told by the voices in their heads, with judicious editing. Sometimes also with cut-scenes that are destined never to see the light of day but had to be written to sort out some wrinkle of the piece.

Yes, I am an extreme pantser, but people who are much more plotters than I am have the same issues.

If that isn’t enough writing, like any creative endeavor, is immensely stressful. No matter what you write or how brilliant it is, there will always be some who think it’s the greatest thing ever, and others who wonder why anyone would pay to read that. This is why writers are warned to take reviews and criticism with a hefty dose of salt.

Then there’s the uncertainty factor. Whether you’re a bestseller with the big publishers or self-publishing through Amazon, you’re only as good as the last book, if that. Writers don’t have paid vacation, pension plans (the writer’s backlist is their pension plan, and we all know what happened to that for all but the blockbuster bestsellers), or any of the other benefits your average salaried worker expects – and that’s just a sample of the uncertainties.

It’s no surprise that writers have major stress issues – which of course makes their… let’s say stability… issues worse.

On top of that, superstition drivers in writing abound. This happens any time reward is divorced from action, which for writers is something like 100% of the time in traditional publishing. Self publishing there seems to be a threshold of “good enough” beyond which almost anything will sell but won’t necessarily go big – so the reward lies in volume rather than quality once you pass that threshold. Given that writers also tend strongly to perfectionism, this isn’t necessarily ideal, but it’s still much better from the superstition/paranoia perspective.

Of course, there are other stresses. Writers – again, like many creative folks – tend to be anti-social or asocial introverts who have issues dealing with everyday life. I’m no exception. My issues have produced hordes of little baby issues that grew up and started families of their own and then went to war with each other. I can usually keep track of which universe my feet are in, but that’s often the limit of it. There’s a reason I’m happy to let my husband handle bill paying and bank accounts. I’d forget to pay the electric and then we’d be in real trouble.

Given all of this, writers end up with some really creative stress reduction techniques – as well as a pretty good nose for stress-avoidance.

Stress-avoidance for writers usually means not getting into situations you know will be stressful, and avoiding people who cause the basic stress reaction (the unfulfillable desire to choke the living shit out of someone who desperately needs it) but there are traps even the most experienced stress-manager writer can fall into.

The Stalker

This one is pretty much unavoidable. A writer gets good enough and their work gets in enough hands, and they’ll have someone deciding that writer is their new bestest friend evah. For someone who’s already a relatively private, introverted type, this isn’t easy to deal with. Some preventives are not giving out more detail about where you live and where you can be found than the essential (conventions are the exception here – you tee up with your writer friends to provide evasion methods when necessary, since if your stalker doesn’t do anything illegal there’s not much that can be done about them), not having a publicly listed phone number, writing under a name that’s not your real one, having a generic email for fans to contact you that isn’t the same one as the email you give your family and real friends – and making sure you have a few throwaway email addresses in case you need to change one because of stalker activity. Email rules to delete anything by a specific sender help, too.

The Toxic Fan

This particular stress is probably the hardest one to catch before it affects you. Few writers can resist someone who is a fan of their work and puppy-eager for more of it and offers to help with… well, anything really, but often something you’d rather not be doing. Once the hooks are in, they start twisting. If you include them in your betas or first readers you’ll get some valid comments mixed with a lot of nitpickery that is often flat out useless – except that many, many writers are horribly insecure about their work and try to fix the nits, only to find that there are more and more each subsequent round. Since the Toxic Fan often doesn’t realize they’re effectively puffing themselves up at “their” writer’s expense, it can be bloody difficult to recognize one, and harder to disconnect.

Some clues are the nitpicking critique, usually things none of your other first readers and betas pick up on, the offers to help which turn into frustrating wastes of time because they aren’t up to what they’re trying to do, the implications that people you and the fan know are in some way not helping you the way they should (and writers are prone to paranoia, making this doubly vicious). If you find yourself consistently depressed by dealing with one particular fan, and withdrawing from your other fans and writing friends, chances are you need to break off from this person for a while and see if that improves things. If it does, you’ve got a toxic fan and you need to put tight limits on any interaction with that person.

The Metric Shit-Ton of Work

This particular stress afflicts pretty much everyone, but for writers (and anyone else creative) there’s the added risk that too much stress will shut down the creativity. The short-short explanation of this is that the more stressed you are the more your brain and body shift you into pure survival mode, shutting down anything that’s not essential and shunting whatever can be done on autopilot over to the autopilot modes. Personally, I’ve found when that happens if I don’t cut back on stress or find a way to release it, I’m headed for breakdown.

It’s deceptively easy to end up with a metric shit-ton of work, too. Typically normal everyday life eats a chunk of the waking hours, since nothing has ever been invented that cleans itself properly, then there’s the day job if you’ve got one, or running around doing other stuff because if you’re working from home you’re basically free to do whatever, right? (Yeah, right. We all know what happens there.)

Plus, being basically decent people – most of us anyway, although I’m not that sure about myself – we try to help out friends and family when we can, and that gets even more commitments.

When they’re ‘hard’ commitments, like a job, it’s bloody difficult to shunt off a few to drop the stress levels. Softer commitments are also difficult, mostly because of the people who’d be disappointed.

All of which leads to stress release techniques.

Those who know me know that one of mine is to caricature people who’ve really pissed me off and then kill them in inventive ways during the course of whatever I happen to be writing at the time. That of course presumes I’m in a fit state to write….

I get there – at least some of the time – by mindless virtual violence, usually in the form of sheepie molestation these days, although I’m also working through Skyward Sword on the wii, and will obsessively play social games, solitaire, and the like. I use these to slow down the wild spinning of thoughts enough that during the week I can sleep, and on weekends, I have a chance to get some quality writing time in (hah! Most of what I’ve done lately has been in stolen time at work… usually between waiting for other things to run on my work machine).

Some folks meditate. Others cook. The key thing there is to find something you enjoy and can do without too much mental exercise. If it involves physical exercise, that can be even better – just because physical stuff generally helps mild depression and stress.

So, anyone feel like sharing some of the stress-generators they’ve run into, the insanity-fuel, and the stress-reduction techniques that work for them? The more the merrier – if you recognize something as a possible problem you can do something about it, and if you’ve got a whole boat-load of ways it can be dealt with, then if one doesn’t work, you can move on to the next.