The relationship between anxiety and creativity is an interesting one to consider, especially for a creatively-inclined soul such as myself. While my majors are history and media studies, I’m also doing a minor in creative writing, which last year involved two intensive workshop-style creative writing courses: one in short fiction, which I loved; the other poetry, which I hated. It balanced out. Getting to study creative writing at university last year, and get actual points towards my degree by doing something which to me felt far more like leisure than work, was a treat. And because I was so sick with anxiety for the majority of last year, mental illness was a prominent theme in both of the portfolios I produced for the classes.
In my short fiction workshop in the first semester, bringing my own personal experiences with anxiety and mental illness into the fictional narratives I was creating was a way to express the feelings of helplessness, imprisonment and ruination I felt when I had no idea how to explicitly tell anyone what was happening in my head. My poetry workshop in the second semester was a way through which I could become comfortable with the word ‘anxiety’ and applying it to myself. It was a way for me to express what I’d been through and to lay out my journey on paper. That poetry workshop occurred at the time in my life when I started the medication and was just beginning my journey of recovery. Writing poetry was a way of getting through that uneasy, transitional period of my life.
Everyone close to me knows that writing is kind of my thing. When I first went on anti-depressants to treat my anxiety and panic attacks, one of the people closest to me expressed concern about this decision. It wasn’t the typical stigma-driven but you’re fine, you don’t need meds. Rather, this person asked, ‘But what if the medication takes away your creativity?’
It’s not a question I thought about myself, but when confronted with it, my response was instant. A no-brainer. ‘I don’t know, but even if it does, I will always choose mental health over the ability to write.’ And while I still stand by that statement today, it’s an interesting sentiment to unpack. So in this post I want to unpack the dilemma of whether we should value mental health at the expense of creativity, by answering three questions. I don’t know how many people are actually interested, but it’s interesting to me, so I’m going to write it anyway.
How has having anxiety influenced my creative work?
My experiences with anxiety definitely leant themselves very well to my writing. That’s just a fact. Severe anxiety makes you feel all kinds of things: despair, frustration, hopelessness, alienation, deep sadness and a tendency towards self-destructive thoughts or actions. These are all very powerful emotions, which I found I could easily transform into the experiences of the fictional characters I was writing about for my short fiction workshop.
If I recall correctly, one gripe that one of the markers of my short fiction porfolio had was the fact that all the main characters in my stories seemed to ‘lack agency’. I normally welcome constructive criticism with open arms and pay good heed to it, especially if it comes from someone who has had many years’ experience in the industry and/or whose opinion I value highly. But in this case, I felt a little defensive about this comment. At the time I received the report, I couldn’t figure out why it bothered me that he took issue with that. It took me a while to realise: that was the whole goddamn point. That’s how mental illness (anxiety, at least) makes you feel. It takes away your agency. It took away mine, at least. You feel like a bystander in your own life, just as my characters were in their stories. That was the experience I was trying to convey.
Even though the works I produced for my short fiction portfolio could arguably be improved upon from the state I submitted them in, they were very successful – both in the course and externally, in writing competitions. The longest of the pieces I created, a story called I Hope You Have a Wonderful Day, won the Novice Writer category of the BNZ Short Story Awards. I was twenty at the time, and it’s a pretty fucking big deal for a twenty-year-old to crack that prize. Another of my portfolio pieces, The Spines of Little Histories, was highly commended in the same competition. Both stories were about young people living with mental illness. Neither would exist if I didn’t have an anxiety disorder, and if I hadn’t experienced the hell it put me through.
Would I revoke the success of those stories if it meant I’d never had an anxiety disorder? Never. As shitty as it was living with anxiety last year, I think that, beyond the literary success it brought me, it also taught me some invaluable lessons, gave me some important experiences, and brought some pretty great people into my life. Without my disorder, there’s a lot I never would have done (like start this blog, for example). If I didn’t have anxiety, I wouldn’t have gone through a long (and continous) process to become the person I am today. And I kinda like being that person. So no, I wouldn’t change the fact that I had those poo times even if I could.
That said, it’s interesting at this point to play with another question: would I go back to being bad again, if it guaranteed future literary success? Fuck no. It’s taken a lot of time and work to get to the place I am now, and I want to keep going forward from here, not backward. Even winning a Nobel prize in literature (lel) would not be worth it. Nothing is worth risking my recovery.
I’m not sure how well that answered the question, really. It got a bit rambly. To answer in short: anxiety has been the strongest influence on my creative work, at least the stuff I’ve produced since high school. Which leads me to believe that the link between mental illness and creativity must go beyond my personal experiences.
Is there a correlation between mental illness and creative minds?
I’m inclined to say yes. The stereotype of the tortured artist exists for a reason. Throughout history, some of the most brilliant creative minds – like painter Vincent van Gogh and poet Sylvia Plath, to name just a couple – were known to suffer from the kinds of ‘madness’ that characterise mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. “Art,” according to an article on The Guardian, “has led the way in seeing mental illness not as alien or contemptible but part of the human condition – even as a positive and useful experience.”
This is not to say that all mentally ill people are going to be predisposed to creative brilliance or a pursuit of the arts. Nor does it mean that all the most creative people are going to suffer from some form of mental illness, or that in order to be able to create meaningful art one must know mental illness and suffering. To make this statement also begs the question,is mental illness proportionally higher in the creatively inclined, or do creative people who also suffer from mental illness just tend to use creative expression as a method of dealing with their ailments?
I don’t have the answer to this. This is an issue that has prompted considerable debate – with some saying that yes, obviously there’s a link, whereas others remain sceptical, citing a lack of definitive scientific proof. Interestingly, as I was writing this, the Internet went a bit wild with the findings of a recently published study purporting to have isolated this link we’re all craving.
An article posted on I Fucking Love Science explained that the study “suggests genes that increase an individual’s risk of developing schizophrenia and bipolar disorder can also be used to predict how creative they are.” However, it also offers critique of the study’s usefulness, which appears not to be convincing enough to warrant an adoption of the belief that yes, creative people are more likely to develop mental illnesses.
This does not mean that there is no link whatsoever. Even if that link may simply be that, when mental illness strikes an individual with creative inclinations, they are likely to use their creative talents to express their pain, to transform it into something that wider society can access, and perhaps even to find some kind of beauty or positivity in their suffering.
What’s the trade-off between recovery and creativity?
It depends a lot on the kind of person you are. Some people find themselves at their most creatively productive when they’re happy, calm and generally occupying a good headspace. Others are most inspired when they are dealing with personal problems or emotional pain. Unfortunately, I largely find myself occupying the latter bracket. One of the reasons I love to write is because it gives me an opportunity to explore the mundane everydayness of modern life, to look at it through a particular lens and to try and find the extraordinary in the ordinary. That’s one thing that fascinates me. But I’ve also found that when my anxiety took me to the darkest place last year, those months were the most productive I’ve ever been in terms of producing creative writing.
Now, this could be for a number of reasons. In my experience, creative drive tends to fluctuate a lot. It depends on external factors: where you are in your life, how busy and stressed you are, what’s occupying your thoughts, whether or not you’ve got the time or space to find a creative mood. Last year I had to make that time – otherwise, I wouldn’t have produced the portfolios I was required to for the CREW (creative writing) courses I was taking. So the fact that I had to write for school may have played a large part in my creative output this year. But I also found I was writing a lot of little prose snippets in my free time, and these were pretty much exclusively a way of me trying to deal with my anxiety, with all the shitty things I felt every day.
Now I don’t feel those shitty things every day. Since I’ve been recovering from mental illness rather than suffering from it, I no longer feel the constant, often paralysing fear; the dizziness and breathlessness and the nausea; the feeling that I am not good enough and never will be; the feeling that my mind and my body are both on a constant mission to destroy me. (If all of that sounds dramatic and intense, it’s because mental illness is a very intense, very serious experience. Sorry not sorry.)
What I’ve also noticed since I’ve been in recovery is that I no longer have a drive to write stories about my experiences with anxiety. I’ve barely been writing stories or poetry at all. And I do wonder if this is the price I’m paying for recovery: that, in losing my anxiety, I’m also losing the feelings and experiences that drove me to write.
If it is the price I’ve got to pay, then I’ll pay it. I’d rather never write another story for the rest of my life than to ever face a serious relapse. But I also have to think about the fact that I’m doing more writing now – every week, for this blog – than I did in the entirety of last year. And I’d say this is a form of creative writing too. Maybe none of the content that I produce on here will be anything I’d ever be able to enter into competitions and submit for publications in journals. But it engages the part of me that needs to create. I get to write, and I get to talk about my experiences with anxiety, and I get to contribute – in my own little way – to the collective pool of awareness about and content explaining mental illnesses.
And I think that’s enough for me.