What Hemingway Actually Said: Mental Illness and Creativity

Almost every writer out there, especially those who enjoy their drinks, believe that Hemingway said that he wrote drunk and edited sober. There’s no evidence of this, and, in fact, there is evidence that it was said by another author, making fun of a third author (possibly for sloppy writing). What Hemingway actually said was:

My training was never to drink after dinner nor before I wrote nor while I was writing.

— A Moveable Feast, pg 174

Don’t dig something that he wrote in a piece of fiction as a description of his philosophy? What about this except from an interview where he was asked specifically about his drinking and writing.

Jeezus Christ! Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You’re thinking of Faulkner. He does sometimes – and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he’s had his first one. Besides, who in hell would mix more than one martini at a time?

— Hemingway

It turns out that the man who would drink for just about any reason, simply wouldn’t mix it with his writing. And with good reason – drinking while you write may be one thing, but being drunk while you write is a very different beast.

This dovetails me into what I want to talk about – that bizarre intersection of mental illness and creativity. There are a number of studies and common wisdom that suggest that there is an overlap there. I’m not here to contest that, but rather suggest that we don’t need to glorify it in the way that prevents some from seeking help.

The team behind Penny Arcade and Scott Kurtz, for example, have discussed on podcasts and elsewhere the respective fears they faced going onto medication to deal with their problems, worrying that treatment of their respective situations would mean saying goodbye to the creative juice. And it just isn’t the case.

[be] wary of studies that link mental ill health with creativity or a high IQ.

— Dr Oliver Joe Robinson

One of the biggest difficulties in the studies on creativity and mental illness is two-fold. Mental illness is often hard to do research on, given the pressures to hide illness. On the other side of things, Dr Robinson points out that creativity is notoriously “flighty and ill defined”, suggesting that it is difficult to definitely say beyond the anecdotal.

My personal theory, as a complete amateur at these topics, is that creativity is often utilized as a crutch or a coping mechanism, especially when there is something preventing proper treatment. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, and isn’t the only reason that people turn to creative endeavors. Rather, if life is hard, it is easier to find solace in something so far departed from life itself.

There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.

— Salvador Dali

My concern, is that the attraction that refusing to find some way to better care for yourself can have. If you think that your suffering, whether it is from depression, anxiety, or something else, is the cause of your creativity, you have some incentives to avoid getting better.

Don’t do that. Just, don’t. There are so many examples of creatives who have treated their anxiety, or their depression, or whatever and continued to create. Many of them have gone on to create great things. J. K. Rowling has talked about her difficulties and how getting over them was instrumental to finishing Harry Potter. The aforementioned webcomics folks have continued to create despite medication and counseling.

If you don’t like anecdotal evidence, then don’t just trust me. Andreasen has done a number of studies on what is called the “tortured genius myth”, and has found that creative people don’t succeed because of their emotional baggage, but rather in spite of it. Even though she did find an increased likelihood for creative people to have or be treated for mood disorders, it was not an effective predictor of success.

Especially important from these findings and others was that the stress and suffering of mood disorders did not directly help the individual in their creative endeavors. In fact, they tended to be most productive when in a positive mood. Treatment did not appear to limit or hinder their creativity in any way. There have been a large number of studies that show that any link between creativity and mental illness is not a direct causal link (See, for example Explaining Creativity by Dr R Keith Sawyer). If anything, it appears that people who suffer from depression and bipolar disorder, in particular, appear to have a higher selection rate for ‘creative industries’ than others.

So, it looks like the tortured or suffering artist (including here authors, painters, photographers, poets and so much more) stereotype is just that – a stereotype. It is not a prophecy, not a road or a path you must travel down. So, fellow creatives, if you’re worried that you’re feeling down or might have a psychological problem, but fear that you’ll lose your spark – there’s no evidence of this. Talk to your doctor, someone you trust, or look into local resources.

There are so many out there, and people are always there to help.

If you’ve got a source that really helped you, someone you want to give a shout-out to anyone who’s fighting the good fight or anything of the sort, leave it in the comments below.

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