Tag Archive | Helen Ginger

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.”

My Blog Book Tour – I’m running as fast as I can!

Alice in Wonderland, rabbit“I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date!” I feel like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, trying frantically to keep up with my Blog Book Tour. Today I’m on Karen Walker’s blog, Following The Whispers, writing about the tragic saga of my golden retriever Lucky, as well as my shepherd-mix Rishi who stars in Mood Swing.

 

I just sent off a post to Jean Henry Mead for her blog Writing Advice & Good Books, where I’ll be visiting tomorrow. My topic:

First or third person? One voice or many? Julie Lomoe’s musings on point of view.

Fortunately, I’ve already given the topic considerable thought. I moderated a virtual panel discussion about POV for the Poisoned Pen Web Con on October 24, so I’m revisiting some of what I said there. By the way, the day’s proceedings, including my panel, are now free on line through the above link. It’s a real treasure trove of information.

Friday’s stop: Helen Ginger’s Straight from Hel blog 

Brian Wilson nowLast night I heard Brian Wilson of Beach Boys fame at The Egg. Although his voice has coarsened over the years, he had a first-rate band with several singers who created beautiful harmonies. Brian seemed happier than when I heard him at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center several years ago. I’m reminded of the perennial “tortured genius” theme – Brian Wilson certainly qualifies. That in turn reminds me of the “genius is only a step away from madness” theme. I’ll be writing about that  on Helen’s blog, drawing on my personal experience from an acute manic episode. Friday the 13th seems like an appropriate day for that particular piece of personal history.

Thanks to the blog hosts who’ve been so patient and tolerant of my last-minute efforts. And to those hosting me next week: I’m in catch-up mode now, so in the immortal words of Brian Wilson, “Don’t worry baby – everything will be alright.” (I used to sing that gorgeous song as a lullaby for my daughter, and now I sing it to my granddaughters.)