First of all, why are you here when you could be enjoying the wonderful Edinburgh eBook Festival?
Second, this has been a month dominated by a fever of around 40 degrees that has seen most of it spent in delirium (such as one day and night long episode when I was convinced that the Peak District had been made illegal and kept screaming out "but it won't go away"), followed by utter exhaustion. Which means my productive time has been somewhat curtailed, so forgive whatever rambling comes out.
Nonetheless, this state of affairs has chimed in with a series of articles that has appeared recently in the Guardian triggered by the release of "The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink", and also my recent reading, in preparation for hosting an event with the author at Waterstones (have they made their official minds up about the apostrophe yet?) Piccadilly, of Taipei by Tao Lin, one of today's most famously and unashamedly drug-fuelled writers. Not to mention that old chestnut of creativity and madness.
(life:) razorblades included in which I deal with mental illness and addiction - free to download)
The long and the short is that the mythmakers, egged on by portraits of Van Gogh and decontextualised quotations from Aldous Huxley, equate creativity and chemically induced (be that exogenous, as with drink and drunks, or endogenous as with depression/bipolar/schizophrenia) altered reality.
Now, there's a chicken and egg in operation here - are those people who are naturally creative prone to these conditions, or are people who fall prey to these conditions more creative?
Only, it's not really a chicken and egg thing at all, because that quandary can only be argued out if there were some kind of correlation between addiction, mental illness, and creativity (and even then one would have to argue the cause vs correlation case). And I really don't think there is. And it bothers me greatly that others do think there is, especially the media who perpetuate the myth.
Before I get onto media-bashing, let me bash the myth from experience. Yes it's anecdotal, but I'm sure I've read in enough places that the research concurs. First, an anecdote (seems fitting). I once asked a friend to a performance poetry night I was staging. "I'd love to," she said, "but I'm really not sure about all the drinking." That goes to show how far the image of the debauched poet has spread into our shared consciousnes. I went through the list of performers in my head. There were four of us. Two teetotal, one who drinks on Christmas and New Year if that, and one who has the occasional pint of cider. Now yes, my travelling troupe The New Libertines are also somewhat notorious in some circles for polishing off the whole of the complimetary gin at a literary festival sponsored by Hendricks. Yes, they did pioneer the "wine in one mug, canapes in another" approach to green room eating at another festival this year. But taken as a whole, the writers I know are pretty representative of the general population (now, publishers on the other hand...). And I expect that's extrapolatable.
Likewise, when it comes to the fevers of delirium and their creative fecundity, um... I'm certainly not sure how many people want to read jumpy scattershot half thoughts about the recidivist tendencies of England's national parks, even if I had been able to get them on paper. And as for manic episodes leading to bursts of production and insight, well yes, there are times when I've been dangerously ill and have produced an awful lot...of illegible tosh. Just like most people I know who suffer hypo/manic episodes. And as for depression - when you can't lift your legs to get out of bed in the morning and the whole world is beating down on you in a mass, humid, blanket of greyed fuzz, I'm not sure I could write my name, let alone a masterpiece.
But what is most egregious is the glamourisation of illness and addiction. The way self-diagnosing bipolar is made out to be a fashion statement, or beginning creatives are led to believe that their creative juices will flow out in proportion as the intoxicating juices flow in. And worst of all the "artistic lifestyle" adopted like a pose just as it has been trhough the fin de siecle, the ineffectual excesses of recesses of The Beat, and now the prescription medheads of the Alt Lit generation. There is nothing glamorous about liver disease, the dark stabbing cramps of withdrawal, the self-loathing of addiction, the grey haze of depression, running terrified in search of refuge from an enemy that you can never escape because it's in your head, the ceaseless benders of mania that destroy friendships, relationships, dreams and lives.
And there is certainly nothing about any of that that either triggers creativity or makes for particularly interesting reading. Which isn't to say that writing about addiction and depression can't be brilliant, and life-changing. Katelan Foisy's devastating memoir/biography Blood and Pudding, which follows her two best friends from brigt young thing down the heroin trail to the grave, and Philippe Djiann's breathtaking spiral into madness of the eponymous Betty Blue both changed my life.
And my collection (life:) razorblades included, written as a tribute to my best friend after her fourth suicide attempt is an attempt at an honesty so brutal that it skirts the "it will pass"/"you will get better" pandering and offers the bald truth of the horrors of illness in an effort to reach out and show those who are suffering that they are not alone. What it is not is an attempt to say how great it is to be ill because look how creative you'll be.