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.”

10 thoughts on “When you’re feeling creative, how crazy is too crazy?

  1. Writers are just a tad crazy. We hear and see people who aren’t there. We make up outlandish scenarios. We kill people, albeit people who don’t exist in real life, which perhaps is even crazier. If the people in our heads get too happy or comfortable, we cause bad things to happen to them.

    Yep, we’re crazy. And happy to be.

    Straight From Hel

  2. Helen’s right. What we do is bizarre.

    Julie, you do a good thing when you share your experience. I’m guessing it helps a lot of people who might not understand their own behavior and what they might do to make their lives better.

  3. Helen, thanks for checking in, and for giving me the chance to put this up on your blog last November. Back then, I made a conscious choice not to post it on my own blog, because I was applying to two artists’ residency programs, and I was worried that they might check out my blog and decide I was too crazy. But surely they’ve made their decisions by now, so what the hell (or Hel).

    Patricia, thanks for the validation. It’s still scary to put this stuff out there for all the world to see – especially when no one comments and I think, “Oops, I’ve gone too far this time and scared everyone away.”

  4. Hi Julie,

    Thanks for posting this. I enjoy reading your blogs. This one I am printing out and will put in my copy of Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders. Have your read Riding the Wind Horse by Robert Corringon. He spoke at UUCC a few times, lived in Woodstock but moved somewhere else in NY state. Can’t remember where at the moment. Riding the Wind Horse is his story of being bi-polar.

    • You’re welcome, Betsy, and thanks for mentioning my book. I haven’t heard of the one you mention, but lots of well known authors are or were bipolar.

      Somehow I still intend to get the word out there about this book to the mental health community and those who’ve experienced bipolar disorder, especially as family members. Readers have told me MOOD SWING really helps them understand the illness better.

  5. Reading this I realized that the only Bud Powell I had in my library was a cassette tape, so I just downloaded a greatest hits album from iTunes — thanks for poking me like that.

    • Thanks for reminding me that I really need to learn how to use iTunes – and to get a turntable so I can play my old LPs and convert them to digital.

  6. Very interesting article. It gave me a new perspective. My friend was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder and I’ve been trying to understand what it is like to live with this disorder. I’ve searched the net and also, picked up a book called “bipolar bare”. It’s a memoir about a man who has lived with it all his life. He describes the extreme highs and lows. In the end he concludes that it is a blessing…what an amazing story.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Betty. MOOD SWING will give you even more insight – hope you’ll get it, maybe as a gift for your friend, since my heroine, Erika Norgren, lives very successfully with bipolar disorder.

      For all my readers – if you’d like to order a book directly from me rather than Amazon, please e-mail me at jlomoe@nycap.rr.com.

  7. Hey, my friend ! We do not know what Bud Powell´s state of mind or health was. We all have to be sceptics concerning this. Quite another thing, and most important for the “still living” is the masterly (!!!!) works he left us, which can be listened to for hours. It is marvellous music. And that is absolutely what matters.

    I do not think being crazy helps anybody in no way. But one never knows……

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