why writers write, I recently embarked on a quest to find the golden egg of
psychoanalytic writing theory. In this vein, and hoping to find something
completely Freudian (and thus amusing), I mined old textbooks, pop-culture
theory, metaphysical best-sellers and the Internet. I went looking for a
paradigm, something like: we write to rid ourselves of a suppressed need to
expel our egomaniacal inner selves, without risk of personal recompense.
The analytic me wanted a sort of Occam's Razor approach to understanding a
writerís drive. An "all things being equal, the simplest explanation is probably
correct" kind of reason. I thought maybe if writing is deterministic, if our
urges are born, and then fostered by a biochemical, or a biochemically driven,
deeply psychological imperative, maybe some of us (ehem) can stop wondering if
weíre really meant to do it.
Iíve always thought writers are a little off. Myself included. But turns out,
according to several theorists, for once, I may not be imagining the neurosis.
Seems "crazy" (and I donít mean it pejoratively) might actually be a common
ailment among writers, one that may act as a creative catalyst.
Apparently, roughly one percent of the population has a mood disorder
(manic-depression and clinical depression are the most common). But the
prevalence among writers looks to be disproportionately higher. In the early
1970s, psychiatrist Nancy C. Andreasen of the University of Iowa College of
Medicine set out to explore the relationship between mental illness and
creativity. She examined fifteen writers at the top of their class from the
prestigious University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, and compared their data to
information compiled from other, non-writing students matched for age,
education, and sex.
Andreasenís data concluded that ten of the studyís writers had histories of
mood disorders, compared with only two from the comparison group. Two of those
ten were also diagnosed as manic-depressive (bi-polar), and almost all reported
mood swings, including manic or hypomanic (mildly manic) states.
Andreasen continued her study over fifteen years, and in the October 1987
issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, reported that forty- three percent
of the writers she sampled over time, had some degree of manic-depressive
illness, compared to ten percent of the non-writing sample.
In 1983, University of California at Los Angeles psychologist and professor
Kay Redfield Jamison questioned forty-seven of Britainís top artists and writers
about their mood and psychological treatment history. Thirty-eight percent
answered that they had sought treatment for a mood disorder; a rate roughly
thirty times that of the general population. Of those responding, creative
fiction and nonfiction writers experienced mood disorders with the greatest
frequency, and poets topped the list, with half reporting psychiatric
intervention for depression and/or mania. Almost two-thirds of the playwrights
surveyed had also been treated for a mood disorder. Comparatively, only thirteen
percent of all visual artists queried had been treated.
Ten years later, Jamison wrote a book called Touched
With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness And The Artistic Temperament detailing
her years of research, which argued that manic-depressive illness birthed some
of the best prose written between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries.
Jamison claims that as much as fifty percent of all artists, writers, and
composers may be manic-depressive.
Anyone remember Psych 101, that old nature or nurture debate? Well,
researchers still havenít proven whether mood disorders trigger creativity, or
vice versa, much less any concrete correlation. But Redfield and other
researchers believe that mood disorders potentially jump-start the imagination,
especially when it comes to writing. And an active poll at Writing.com, showing
that 33% of all responding writers live with manic-depression, seems to bolster
at least, that the two are somehow related.
Itís a real chicken or egg debate. Maybe we are slaves to biochemical and
psychological imperatives, driven by our genes and not so much our environment
to write. But take the information with a grain of salt. Because plenty of
people have mood disorders who canít write to save their lives. And if even 40%
of all writers have a mood disorder, that still means 60% write for or are
motivated by other factors.
For now, Iíll leave you with this. Twentieth century Viennese psychoanalyst
Edmund Bergler, who coined the term "writerís block," opined that regardless of
a writerís normal outer appearance, a writer is "entirely surrounded by
neuroticism in private life." Bergler claimed, "I have never seen a Ďnormalí
writer," and theorized that a writer writes because "the megalomaniac
pleasure of creation . . . produces a type of elation which cannot be compared
with that experienced by other mortals" (italics his).
Hmm, maybe for a couple of months at least, I can stop over thinking my
motivation, and approach writing from a more Darwinian place. Crazy? Moody?
Megalomaniacs? Maybe, but born to it or not, with that kind of spot-on send up,
who can blame us.
Writerís Note: Certain books and movies may cast a romantic light on
depression and mania, but mood disorders are deadly serious. If you think you
have one, there are qualified people in every country that can help.
Jennifer Edelson is a former
practicing Minnesota attorney, now regular IN columnst, freelance
writer and legal writing professor. Her writing has appeared on all the finest
refrigerators in the Twin Cities. Jennifer can be emailed at: