‘Where do you get your creative energy from?’ my friend asked.
‘I’m not that creative.’ I laugh. Creativity, in my view, is relative. The graphic designers and hand-letterers I follow on Instagram are creative; they get paid to make pretty things while I sort of dabble. I work sporadically on my memoir, take blurry photos (artistically so, I like to think) and wish to learn watercolours and calligraphy one day.
Yet my friend’s question intrigues me. Why do we feel this need to create, be it art or a sugary wisp of a dessert?
When I started writing this a year ago, I was looking for answers. Tears trickling, I hid the pain as best as I could, but it leaked, like a pen, staining every part of my life. I come from a loving family, untouched by death, illness, poverty or abuse. Well-educated and well-paid, I should have been happy but I wasn’t. I wanted more. But what?
Perhaps this restless discontent, this desire to make something of myself, as a person and a writer, was genetically driven.
Dr Nancy Andreasen, a prominent American neuroscientist and psychiatrist, was one of the first to empirically study the relationship between creativity and mental illness. Published in 1987 in The American Journal of Psychiatry, Andreasen’s study of 30 writers from the prestigious University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and 30 control subjects found that the writers were much more likely to have some type of mental illness, usually manic-depressive illness.
Andreasen’s book, The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius (2005), suggests many traits linked with creative people – ‘openness to new experiences, a tolerance for ambiguity, and an approach to life and the world that is relatively free of preconceptions’ – also make them more vulnerable to mental illness. They can perceive things in new and unconventional ways but their inner world is complex, filled with many questions and few easy answers. To add to this, the creative person may also encounter criticism or rejection for being too questioning or too eccentric which can in turn lead to feelings of depression and isolation. Andreasen writes: ‘While less creative people can quickly respond to situations based on what they have been told by people in authority… the creative person lives in a more fluid and nebulous world’.
History is littered with references to the tortured artist. During the last year and a half of his life, Vincent van Gogh, for example, suffered severe bouts of psychotic mania and psychotic depression yet produced more than 300 of his greatest works. He committed suicide at age 37. A number of writers, including Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman and Anne Sexton, have also died by suicide. Amy Winehouse’s death in 2011 again drew attention to the ‘27 club’. Must one suffer for art?
I was stunned yet relieved to learn that the traits which fed my creativity had also made me vulnerable. Do I write because I am sad? Or does my misery stem from writer’s block?
It’s not easy, being creative. Word by word, stroke by stroke, painstakingly building an argument, a story, a better world. Or at least, our version of what a better world might be. I polish, fret and doubt. Until, like magic, it feels right.
Like any craft, writing is a process, teetering between confidence and doubt. It takes time, courage and faith. It helps to have someone in your corner – other writers, for example – with which to share the struggles, joys and lessons. To write is a privilege not possible without the people who love us.
For a long time, I wrote for myself, in a diary, for no other reader but me. You don’t need an audience to write but you do need to write for others if you wish to make them feel something. To stop, wonder, and see the world anew. To laugh, cry and, ultimately, feel less alone. I still remember the first time I read an article by Alice Pung: ‘Wow, someone like me! At last!’ I want to be able to give that feeling to someone. That, and the thrill of the byline, drives my writing. Others, no doubt, have their own reasons for creating.
Me, I like to think I’m creating my own destiny. Word by word.
Image: Negative Space
Shu-Ling Chua is a writer, reviewer, Noted festival 2016 Live Producer and HARDCOPY 2015 participant. She blogs at hello pollyanna while living the memoir she hopes to finish one day. Her work has appeared in BMA Magazine, The Victorian Writer, Scissors Paper Pen and Capital Letters. Shu-Ling spends her free time reading, traipsing and measures her life in playlists. You can follow her on Twitter @hellopollyanna