The Insanity Defense

November 8, 2014 | By | 7 Replies More

daniella latham deeIt’s the subject of constant debate and since the beginning of the written word, authors and artists have been asked the question:

Where did it all go wrong?”

If anyone has asked you this question, you may in fact have an advantage over other writers or creative folks. It implies that you can spin a good story, engage the reader with your tale and hold interest…you can stir emotion, good or bad, if you have some degree of relative insanity.

I’ve written about this topic before because it’s fascinating to think about the theory that writers who have some form of mental illness can harness it into compelling copy. It’s the thought that the severity of the affliction is directly proportionate to the amount of skill you possess as a writer.

It is true that many of the most prolific writers of our time may have “had a screw loose” by all measurable standards of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association. It’s the bible for standard classifications of mental health diagnoses in the U.S.

Take Hemingway or Plath, for example.

Both brilliant writers who were (considered) clinically depressed. Their angst manifested itself in the drinking, the drugs, the failed relationships with family and significant others.

Has your life been filled with nightmares where you wake up in a cold, drenching sweat? Its subject could be fodder for a book – or at least a few good articles.

“I think I’ve only spent about ten percent of my energies on writing. The other ninety percent went to keeping my head above water.”

 That’s a quote from Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Katherine Ann Porter, who set out to prove the strong ties between creativity and mental illness. She ultimately discovered the majority of her subjects, who were authors, did have some type of underlying issue or diagnosis – but they flourished in spite of their problems, not because of them.

On the flipside in modern-day: There was a large-scale Swedish study in 2012 that proves the opposite of Ms. Porter’s research.

It found that people working in creative fields, including dancers, photographers and authors, were 8% more likely to live with bipolar disorder. Writers were a staggering 121% more likely to suffer from the condition, and nearly 50% more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

The recent suicide of Robin Williams opened up the debate again between depression and creative genius.

We had all seen Williams over the years – in numerous films, stand-up comedy or on television. But there was a “dark side” to his life that found its way into the public: drug addiction. After he died, there were reports that he suffered from depression.

Neuroscientist Dr. Nancy Andreason in June’s Atlantic Monthly chose the larger topic for her article, “The Secrets of the Creative Brain.” Ms. Andreason has spent the last few decades studying the greatest creative minds of our generation – Star Wars filmmaker George Lucas and revered author Kurt Vonnegut are just a few notable names.

She found that many of her subjects had similar personality traits in common: all had a connection to bipolar disorder or some type of mental illness.

“Persisting in the face of doubt or rejection, for artists or for scientists, can be a lonely path—one that may also partially explain why some of these people experience mental illness”, wrote Andreason.

So what do these extensive studies really tell us? That life’s experiences and their translation are in the eye of the beholder. Must you have had a terrible childhood to create a piece of art? No. There’s imagination, a wonder, a way of looking at the world unlike another.

Creativity requires pure emotion, that’s it. The impulse of expression, no matter the root cause, is what moves you forward. Use what you can and make it shine.

Daniella (Dee) Latham is a senior writer and editor who spent the majority of her career in the advertising industry. You can connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter: @CopyByDee.


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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, On Writing

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  1. The Insanity Defense | deathbyhoney | November 23, 2014
  1. I’ve been a freelance writer for almost twenty years and interviewed such luminaries as Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, SARK and Anthony Bourdain for magazine articles.

    In 2007 I was diagnosed with postpartum bipolar disorder when my baby was six weeks old. In March, 2015 I landed a book deal with Post Hill Press for my memoir “Birth of a New Brain – Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder” with a foreword by Dr. Walker Karraa. I never imagined that my first book would be about living with bipolar disorder,but it has been a triumph to write about my experience. It comforts me to know that my book will help other women who suffer with postpartum mood disorders. Writing about my journey has been incredibly challenging but therapeutic. I only wish that my father, a brilliant professional violinist who had bipolar (and who was a voracious reader) was alive to see my realize my writing dream.

    • Daniella (Dee) Latham says:

      Hello Dyane, thank you for reading the article and sharing your story, Congratulations on your book and it sounds like you indeed will be helping many people by sharing your experience. I’m sure in some way, shape, or form, your dad is triumphantly watching. Best, Daniella

      • Thanks so much Daniella! I’m glad I checked back here on a whim 🙂

        One thing I neglected to mention in my previous comment was that when I became hypomanic immediately after my baby Marilla (“Anne of Green Gables”-inspired name) was born, I became hypergraphic.

        Hypergraphia is a condition in which one feels an overwhelming compulsion to write & it can be triggered by bipolar disorder. People with bipolar disorder, especially during mania or hypomania, may find themselves writing for hours and hours, which is what I did night and day and although I simultaneously breastfed my child, I was obviously out of whack with my focus. Hypergraphia may be associated with temporal lobe epilepsy and schizophrenia, as well as certain brain injuries. I wrote hundreds of pages during the first postpartum week, both on my laptop and by hand.

        I knew something weird was up so I Googled a few terms and I came up with Dr. Alice W. Flaherty, author of the bestselling book “The Midnight Brain: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block and the Creative Brain”. (a fascinating book, by the way.) What happened next was truly serendipitous and bizarre, but that will go in my book and save this comment from becoming a novel. I hope this remark may be of some interest…

        All my best to you! I’m off to retweet this link & follow you on Twitter.
        take care,


  2. Chandana Roy says:

    Writing and painting are lonely jobs and I’m not surprised many authors and artists suffer from depression. If they are famous authors or artists, their condition is more likely to be recorded for posterity or reported in the newspapers. However, one must not forget the fact that depression and mental illnesses are more common than one would like to believe. Most people are reluctant to admit that they suffer from any mental condition. Depression has more to do with poor dietary habits and unhealthy lifestyle than your being a genius. When you’re obsessed with your writing or painting, who has the time for cooking healthy meals or going out for that much needed fresh air or long walk? If you’re cooped up in your room for months without proper nourishment , outing or socializing, your mental health as well as relationships are bound to suffer. Add to this drugs, drinks and smoking, and one gets the entire picture. Not to forget the perpetual lack of sleep nights after nights.
    This said, I will not deny there is a strong link between being a genius and suffering from mental illness. And why not? After all, an author or an artist lays bare her/his emotions and soul on paper or canvas, lives with the characters for months, even years, feels their pain deeply – deeply enough to be disturbed and depressed. Only when go through a turmoil in your inner world, can you create something that stirs emotions. The more of a genius you are, the more poignant your creations are.. I’m happy though that authors like Jane Austen and Pearl S Buck were sane enough to create some of the most insanely lovable characters in the history of English literature.

    • Daniella (Dee) Latham says:

      Hello Chandana, thank you for reading the article and your comments. Your last sentence made me smile! Best, Daniella

  3. Zenobia says:

    That last bit summed up my idea about creativity; it takes great emotion.

    Those of us who have experienced depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses can take solace in the arts. Therapy, almost, because it’s a positive way to dealwith some difficult emotions.

    It’s not a prerequisite though.

    The other thing I remember is that creativity is not shown in the arts. Scientists, teachers, programmers, planners… so many jobs require creativity.

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