When you’re feeling creative, how crazy is too crazy?

Bud Powell at Birdland

Since early adolescence, I’ve been fascinated by the fine line between creativity and madness, and the life stories of artists and writers who suffered from mental illness. At 13, when I took up painting and jazz piano, I was intrigued to learn the great bebop pianist Bud Powell was schizophrenic. I barely knew what the word meant, but it sounded romantic, and I thought his illness contributed to the brilliance of his intense, driven style in compositions like “Un Poco Loco.”

When it comes to artistic creativity, is being “a little crazy” an asset or a liability? The question has been the subject of endless speculation. Would Van Gogh have been as great if he’d been totally sane? What about Robert Schumann or Virginia Woolf? I’m not sure, but in my own case, being a bit over the top has probably helped. At any rate, my experiences with bipolar disorder inspired my first novel, Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders.

I came by the diagnosis atypically late, in my early 50’s. I was running ElderSource, Inc., a Licensed Home Care Services Agency, and the work was unbelievably stressful. A shrink prescribed Zoloft, and the effect was amazing. Within a couple of weeks, I felt better than I had in years, ready to take on the world. A few more weeks, and I totally flipped.

Virginia Woolf

It began harmlessly enough. I spent more and more time in my office behind closed doors, writing on my computer. My mind was flooded with inspirations I simply had to get down on paper before they escaped. What’s wrong with that, you ask? Nothing, if you’re a writer – but I was supposed to be running an agency. My memos got longer and longer, then turned into voluminous essays, including one about my father’s brilliance as Managing Editor of the Milwaukee Journal during the McCarthy era. Staff in the office were worried, but I blew them off – I’d never felt better, and I knew what I was writing was of supreme importance.

In early December, I devised a plan to revitalize the economy of the Hudson Valley through a multimedia art show which I would carry out with the assistance of the President of Bard College, Robert Rauschenberg (my favorite artist), and various other luminaries. Soon I was on the phone to Bard, trying to schedule an appointment. I locked myself into my office long past midnight, called the New York Times, and tried to convince some lone reporter on the night shift that they should run a front-page story about my plans, my father and his achievements. A sympathetic listener, he diplomatically suggested that my story might be better suited to the Milwaukee Journal. When I called the police rather than let my husband into the office, things were way over the top.

I narrowly escaped hospitalization. Somehow my husband got me to the shrink, who prescribed heavy medications to tamp down what I came to understand was an acute manic episode. I spent a week at home, prone on the sofa catching up on sleep and watching endless videos, waiting for the lithium to kick in. (I remember especially loving a documentary on Sting,  U-2’s “Rattle and Hum” concert, and Robert Downey Jr. as Charlie Chaplin.) Within two weeks, I was back running ElderSource, but on a new medication regimen and with a newly heightened awareness of just how fragile mental health can be.

Was I manic depressive all along? I don’t know, but I’ve now got an official diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder I, and I’ll probably be on medications for the rest of my life, although the dosage is minimal now. Fortunately, being bipolar seems to be trendy. When I talk about my mystery novel Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders at panels and signings, people from the audience invariably approach me to confide that they or close friends or family members are bipolar. But too often they tell me they’ve kept the information secret for fear of repercussions from the stigma that still surrounds mental illness.  

So is being “un poco loco” good for creativity? Maybe, when it’s under control. These days, that control is possible through advances in psychopharmacology. Hypomania – the state of mind that falls just short of full-blown mania – can be a wonderfully productive state for writers. But if you find yourself locking out your husband and calling the police, it might be time to call a shrink instead, and see about getting onto some new meds.

 *This post originally appeared on Helen Ginger’s wonderful blog, Straight from Hel, on Friday the 13th, November 2009, as part of my first Blog Book Tour.

**This beautiful photo of Bud Powell rehearsing at Birdland in 1958 was taken by Francis Wolff. I heard and met Bud on just one occasion, when we were introduced by Max Roach, around this same period. Sadly, his mind and his playing had deteriorated by this point. His only coherent statement was a plea to my mother – “Buy me a Ballantine’s.”

A starving artist and a viral spiral

Pablo Picasso, The Tragedy, 1903

Yesterday one of my Facebook friends invited people to visit his website, where he’s put up a PayPal button for donations. The cause? Help him with his daily struggles – pay the rent, buy food, that kind of thing. He described himself as a starving artist. The first comment: “Are you f*&%ing kidding? Who do you think you are, asking for money? What do we get for it?”

I jumped in, saying, “What we get is the chance to read Ned’s* poems online for free.” I then proceeded to say how few local writers had bought my books. This in turn prompted more angry responses. How dare Ned and I think we deserved to get paid? So what if I was Albany Author of the Year? The exchange between the two gentlemen continued with considerable vitriol, and other writers jumped in with their own tales of woe – “I can barely make ends meet either, but you don’t hear me bitching and moaning about it!”

Why not? What’s so shameful about admitting we’d like to sell our own work, or even inviting people to make voluntary contributions in order to read it on the Internet? This in turn brings up another important topic – how much are we willing to give away by pouring our creative energies into sharing online? Does there come a time when we can reasonably ask for payment for everything we’re putting out there? What’s in it for us?

For me, what’s in it is the joy and excitement of communicating with people all over the world, the instant gratification of knowing my words are being read and appreciated.  But I wouldn’t mind a little cold hard cash now and again.

I’m reading a fascinating book by David Bollier titled Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own. I saw the author on C-Span’s BookTV a couple of months ago and was intrigued enough to order it online. It’s not easy reading, and I’m not yet ready to write an entire post about it, but here are a few provocative quotes:

Never in history has the individual had such cheap, unfettered access to global audiences, big and small . . . .

The people . . . are reclaiming culture from the tyranny of mass-media economics . . . overthrowing the ‘read only’ culture that characterized the ‘weirdly totalitarian’ communications of the twentieth century. In its place they are installing the ‘read-write’ culture that invites everyone to be a creator, as well as a consumer and sharer, of culture . . . Two profoundly incommensurate media systems are locked in a struggle for survival or supremacy . . . (pp. 8-11)

Powerful stuff. But although Bollier stresses power to the people and the heady virtues of sharing information in the global commons of the Internet, he’s not clear about exactly how we commoners are supposed to profit in this new marketplace. Maybe he’ll have some answers later in the book – I’ll keep you posted.

Words have the power to wound, even – or maybe especially – online. In the course of the angry Facebook exchange, I interjected a memory from the years I was working as an art therapist at Hudson River Psychiatric Center in Poughkeepsie. At a social on a locked ward one Friday afternoon, an alleged “recreation therapist” said to one of the patients, a gifted artist, “I hate to say it, but you look like shit.” The next day the patient escaped from the ward, headed over to the railroad tracks that ran along the river, and committed suicide by train.

The Viral Spiral of the Internet can be a force of positive energy, a way to build community, or it can infect people with hostility and anger. The choice is ours every time we log onto the World Wide Web.

Please share your thoughts on this important topic – I’d love to hear from you.

*I’ve changed Ned’s name, but the online exchange took place among members of the Capital District’s vibrant writing community. We don’t all need to agree – getting total agreement from artists is like herding cats – but I hope we can agree to disagree in a more civilized manner. Then again, who am I to talk? I’ve been known to use the F-word too.

TGIF Blog Party – Drop in, lose the winter blues and do some shameless BSP!

Back in August, I threw a TGIF blog party, and lots of folks stopped by, so I decided to throw another one. The view from my window is wintry, but not in a good way – cold, gray, and windy, with the limbs of the dead tree outside my window threatening to crash down on the roof. Beep, my ginger cat, is peering out, looking in vain for birds.

Time to party and banish those deep winter blues. Here in upstate New York, the weather’s been more than enough to enhance any tendencies to Seasonal Affective Disorder, aka SAD. So as Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett would sing, “Pour me something tall and strong – it’s five o’clock somewhere!” Stop in, bring your favorite dish, and introduce yourself – the party will run all weekend.

I’m bringing my standard potluck contribution, a WalMart special: a huge cheesecake that combines four different styles, all with abundant chocolate. I’ll throw in a bottle of Australian Shiraz – Yellowtail and Alice White are both good – in honor of Torah Bright, who won halfpipe gold at the Olympics last night. Speaking of Australia, picture some hunky party guests like Keith Urban and Hugh Jackman. Guys, I guess you can picture Nicole Kidman.*

I borrowed this idea from Alexis Grant. I’m adding my own twist with a little creative visualization. Writers, envision yourself at a great cocktail party at your favorite conference. Personally, I’m picturing the party the Mystery Writers of America throw after their Edgars Symposium in New York City. Now imagine you’re introduced to someone you’ve always wanted to meet – a top agent, maybe, or your favorite author. You’ve got only a minute or two to captivate them so much that they’ll be dying to read your book.

Okay, now write down that speech and post it here as a comment! Be sure to include a link to your website or blog if you have one. But you don’t have to be a writer to join the party – readers of all persuasions are welcome too! Come on in out of lurking mode and let us hear from you. I hope we can all discover some folks we’d like to know better.

Thanks again to Alexis for this idea. Please feel free to pass it on and throw a party of your own – and don’t forget to mention my blog and pass along the link!

*Congratulations to Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman for hanging in there for over two years of marriage and producing a beautiful baby girl, Sunday Rose. Unfortunately, marriage to Nicole hasn’t done Keith’s music any good, in my opinion. I preferred him when he had a darker, more tortured edge and substance abuse problems.

**I know I said I’d write more about hoarding and cluttering, and I will, but I’m just not in the mood today. By now I should know better than to promise any particular logic or predictable schedule for this blog!

Down with hoarding – in praise of my gorgeous new garbage bin

Am I truly a hoarder? My Significant Other would say so, but I’m not nearly as bad as those folks on A&E’s show Hoarders, which I watch almost as religiously as Project Runway. Hoarders defines hoarding as a mental disorder, but the official verdict’s still out. The boundary between run-of-the-mill cluttering and obsessive-compulsive hoarding isn’t glaringly obvious, either. I could easily imagine myself falling into the predicament of those folks on the show who haven’t been able to sleep in their beds for years because the clothing is piled too high and the beds now belong to the cats.

But perhaps there’s still hope for me. Last week when County Waste, my garbage collecting company, delivered a totally unexpected new black bin with a Kelly green cover, I was positively ecstatic. Were I a true hoarder, the idea of having two big garbage bins rather than one, and thus doubling the amount of trash I could toss each week, would have provoked an acute anxiety attack rather than enthusiastic ambition.

Evidently the garbage company was equally excited, because they glued not one but two lavishly illustrated, full-color promotional fliers atop the lid. One read in part:

Ride the wave to the future of recycling with County Waste!

It’s here! Weekly single stream recycling

AND with your brand new recycling cart!

Now, instead of the old newspaper recycling basket, I’ve got an enormous new bin that will hold the equivalent of four banker’s boxes of paper. They’ll pick it up weekly, along with its grubby old twin, which can now be devoted exclusively to Styrofoam, rotten food from the fridge, yard waste and other unrecyclable trash.

At last I can empty my files, throw out all those old manuscript drafts, all the sample chapters returned in those dreaded self-addressed manila envelopes. The list of acceptable items reads like a laundry list of all the stuff that’s been cluttering my house for years: Computer, FAX and copy paper, magazines and catalogs, newspaper, notebook paper, soft covered workbooks, paperback books, junk mail, and on and on. I can throw glass and plastic bottles in the same bin, along with frozen food containers – in short, practically everything I used to relegate to the regular garbage.

A week has gone by, and tonight is garbage night. I checked the pretty new bin today, and it was still two-thirds empty. What happened to all my fine new decluttering resolutions? As usual, I got sidetracked by any number of activities with higher priorities or greater potential for pleasure.

So am I a hoarder? That depends on how you define the term. I checked my trusty DSM-IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, and to my surprise, hoarding wasn’t even in the index. A little Google research led me to the Mayo Clinic’s site, which defines hoarding as “the excessive collection of items, along with the inability to discard them.” That’s me, for sure. Compulsive hoarding syndrome can be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it’s not considered a distinct mental health problem in its own right.

Not yet, anyway. The fifth edition of the DSM, to be published in 2013, will include hoarding as an official psychiatric diagnosis. The rationale, according to The Wall Street Journal: “Hoarding can lead to significant distress, and including it in the DSM is expected to increase public awareness and stimulate diagnosis and research into the disorder.” Additionally, of course, the new diagnosis will have its very own code number, so insurance will pay for therapy sessions to cope with cluttering. I’m sure we’ll see a burgeoning population of decluttering specialists among mental health professionals. You can already watch some of them at work every Monday night at 10 p.m., coaching those hapless hoarders in their painful efforts to let go of the trash that’s smothering them.

I thought the subject of my gorgeous new trash bin would make a nice tidy little post, but clutter plays such a major – and villainous – role in my life that it deserves a three-part series. So stay tuned for the next installments. Part II will feature more general ruminations, and Part III will deal with the paper clutter that afflicts writers in particular.

How would you diagnose your own relationship to all that stuff in your life? Do you suffer from benign cluttering habits, or malignant hoarding? I’d love to hear from you.

Happiness is the right drug – or so I said in church yesterday

James Ensor

I was Sunday service leader for our Unitarian Universalist congregation yesterday. The sermon topic was “Psychology of Happiness,” and since I’ve lived relatively happily with bipolar disorder for many years now, it’s a subject on which I consider myself an expert.

Here was the Reverend Sam Trumbore’s preview of the service as it appeared in our church newsletter: “Psychologists often focus on the pathologies of the mind. Much of the work of psychology and pschologists deals with mental problems and how to address them effectively. New research has taken a different tack, studying healthy minds and what factors encourage good mental health. Barbara Fredrickson is one such researcher who studies the psychology of happiness.”

Great topic. Here’s how I approached it in my opening words. In the following passage, my lines are in green, my husband’s in magenta:

As a novelist, I love writing dialogue, and happiness is a subject close to my heart, so I jumped at the chance to be service leader today. Here’s a little dialogue I whipped up last night – I’d like to invite my husband up here to help me out. 

(Julie sings to the tune of “Happiness is a warm gun” from the Beatles’ White Album)

Happiness is the right drug, Happiness is the right drug. When I feel the pills start working . . .

Hey wait a minute! What drug are we talking about? What are you doing, advocating drug use on a Sunday morning at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany?

I’m talking legal drugs, prescription drugs. For some people, they’re the only way to conquer serious depression and achieve happiness.

Prescription drugs – yeah, right. That’s what killed Heath Ledger and Michael Jackson. Legal or not, drugs are bad news. Anyone can achieve happiness, if they work hard enough at it. I’ll bet that’s what Sam’s sermon is going to be about.

Who does Sam think he is, talking about happiness? He’s a Buddhist! Don’t they believe all life is suffering? But come to think of it, I’ve talked about happiness with Sam before, when I was so depressed I was practically suicidal. He believes it’s all in your mind.

Well, duh – of course it is! We all have the potential to achieve true happiness. Cognitive psychologists have all kinds of techniques anyone can use to feel better.

I know, I’ve read the books. David Burns, Martin Seligman -

Wait a minute – David Byrne? Wasn’t he the leader of the Talking Heads? His songs are full of gloom and doom. Remember Psycho Killer?

Not THAT David Byrne. This one’s Burns, with an S. He wrote Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Marty Seligman’s another one – he was on public TV just last week, and I get his newsletters online. He wrote Learned Optimism. He believes we all have a set point for happiness. Just as our weight tends to stay around a certain set point, so does our degree of optimism or pessimism. But with training and experience, we can change our own set points for the better -

Seems like you know a lot about all this cognitive stuff. So why are you pushing pills instead?

Because I believe happiness and unhappiness are biochemical to a large extent. Not everybody needs medication to be happy, but some of us do. Of course, a lot depends on our life experiences, too, and the choices we make.

So it’s the old nature versus nurture debate all over again?

Good point! But the two approaches aren’t mutually exclusive. They work well in combination, too. In fact, we could all learn to -

Julie, maybe you’ve said enough for now. After all, this is Sam’s sermon, not yours. Maybe I shouldn’t say it up here in front of the whole congregation, but you can be kind of a show-off.

I know, I admit it. I love being the center of attention – it’s one of the things that makes me HAPPY!

We got a gratifying round of applaluse for our performance, but more importantly, we put across an important message. We all have our own ways of overcoming depression and finding happiness. There are lots of paths to joy – the trick is finding which combination works best for you.

Personally, even though my current medication regimen is minimal, I probably couldn’t live happily without it. How about you? I’d love to hear your comments.

Talking politics on your blog or in your books – is it taboo?

Morgan Mandel posed an interesting question in her post on Acme Authors Link today:

Because of the primary election, my thoughts turned to politics and the role they play with authors and bloggers. I purposely avoid speaking of politics on my blogs. I don’t like to force my opinion on others or alienate people of opposite tastes. I only include politics in a very general sense in my novels. 
What about you? I’m not asking you to tell us your political opinions here. I just want to know your ideas about sharing political views.

Great question, Morgan! As I began to comment, I realized I had so much to say that I’d better post it here rather than cluttering up Morgan’s blog with an endless essay. So here goes . . .

I’ve never consciously considered whether or not to address politics on my blogs or in my fiction. Yes, I try to avoid offending people, but only in certain respects:

  • I never, ever knowingly insult or criticize people in my blogs or my novels, with the occasional exception of celebrities who are famous enough to be fair game. Online, I try to follow the old adage my mother taught me: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all!” In person, it’s another matter. I love dishing the dirt and badmouthing people – only when they deserve it, of course. 
  • With rare exceptions, I avoid using the standard four-letter words, because I know some people are truly offended by them. In my novels, people swear when it’s in character, but not to excess. Orally, again, it’s another matter. In fact, I was once almost banned from the YMCA for use of the F word. If you want to read a poem about it, it’s on the continuation page.
  • There are areas I find too offensive to write about. Excessive sex or violence, torture, child or animal abuse, defamation of minorities or the disabled . . .

I could go on, but when it comes to politics, I have no compunctions about sharing my opinions, whether people agree with me or not. So why don’t I write about politics? Simple – it practically never occurs to me. Politics is a frequent topic in my home, because my husband is executive director of a progressive advocacy organization who deals with political issues constantly. We live in New York State’s Capital Region, and politics here is about as dysfunctional and disgusting as it gets. When Stephen Colbert interviewed Elliott Spitzer last night, it made me long for the good old days before Elliott quit – that’s how bad it is! And I’m really sad that Obama isn’t turning out to be the inspiring leader we’d longed for, although I believe he has the smarts and the good judgment to redeem himself. He’d better hurry up, though, or it’ll be too late. That newly elected Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown is entirely too charismatic and presidential-looking. Be afraid, Barack – be very, very afraid.

In short, politics is a downer, and it’s the last thing I want to think about when I’m at my computer. I won’t refuse to read other writers because of their political views, but I do admit to being turned off by people who use Facebook as a forum for ranting about their beliefs. If they do it too much, there’s a simple remedy – I hide them.

What about you? Do you share your political views in your blog or your books? As a reader, if someone’s political views offend you, do you boycott their writing as a result? I’d love to hear from you. And thanks again, Morgan, for the inspiration for this post.

As promised above, here’s “Anger Management,” my poem about using the F word at the Y – continue reading if you dare!

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