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The Howling Wolf & the Obscene Bird of Night: On Madness and Creativity

‘The natural inheritance of everyone who is capable of spiritual life is an unsubdued forest where the wolf howls and the obscene bird of night chatters.’ Henry James Sr.

I’m going to give you a list of famous names. Before you get to the end of the paragraph see if you can guess what they have in common …

William Blake, Lou Reed, Sylvia Plath, Frank Sinatra, Lord Byron, Emily Dickinson, Charles Dickens, Adam Ant, Ernest Hemmingway, Jack Kerouac, Mary Shelley, Nina Simone, Tolstoy, Vivien Leigh, Tchaikovsky, Virginia Woolf, Brian Wilson, Sergey Rachmaninoff, Vincent Van Gogh, Michelangelo, Jackson Pollock, Lilly Allen, Kurt Cobain, Francis Ford Coppola, Stephen Fry, Ernest Hemmingway, Marilyn Monroe.

If you guessed that each of these people has made an extraordinary contribution to our cultural lives, you’d be right; but it’s not the answer I was looking for. Everyone in the list above has experienced serious mental illness. And for most of them that mental illness was bipolar affective disorder, or what used to be known as manic depression.

Of course, the tormented artist is something of a cliché. It’s up there with the rickety garret, the bottle of Absinthe and the inability to meet a deadline. But get beyond the stereotypes and you discover an unsettling truth – the incidence of mental illness among creative people is way higher than among the rest of the population. The paragraph of names above could easily have run on for several pages.

In her excellent book ‘Touched With Fire’ the academic Kay Redfield Jamison records a recent survey of writers which discovered that almost half met the diagnostic criteria for full blown manic depression. And among distinguished artists the rate of depressive illness was ten to thirty times more than in the rest of the population.

It seems that the most creative among us are prone to bouts of insanity, and the most insane among us are prone to bouts of creativity. Why?

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Well, if you dig a little deeper into the specific symptoms of bipolar affective disorder you discover something remarkable. The bible of psychiatric illness is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM for short. Look up bipolar in the DSM and, among other symptoms, you’ll find the following …

_inflated self esteem

_a decreased need for sleep

_more talkative than usual

_flight of ideas

_an increase in goal directed activity

When I first read this list I was a little taken back. The symptoms were familiar to me: I’d experienced them myself, and all at the same time. Yet, fortunately, I’ve not suffered from manic depression so how could this be? Well, the surprising thing is that as well as describing the high of bipolar this list almost perfectly describes how all of us are – mentally ill or not – when we are at our most creative.

You know that rare feeling when you’re in the zone? When the work just seems to spill out of you … the script writes itself; the painting flows from your hand as if you’re part of the brush; the idea comes to you, effortlessly and fully formed.

Elsewhere researchers have described this heightened, highly creative state of mind as ‘flow’, one of the hottest topics in neuroscience at the moment. But what I find illuminating is just how close it is to the manic phase of bipolar. Self-doubt disappears and the rational, critical part of our psyche is eclipsed. Our imagination becomes disinhibited and runs free. We forget about needing to sleep, to eat, to go to the bathroom; our focus is fully on the work. And the ideas flow in such a way that they seem to be arriving unbidden and without any conscious effort.

Virginia Woolf put it like this, ‘As an experience, madness is terrific I can assure you, and not to be sniffed at; and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about. It shoots out of one everything shaped, final, not in mere dribbles, as sanity does.’

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf


Now, please don’t take this article the wrong way. I am not romanticising mental illness. I know from personal experience how destructive its effects can be. Indeed the source of Virginia Woolf’s inspiration would also be the cause of her own death. But I do think there is much to be learned for all of us from the undeniable relationship between creativity and madness. For if we can co-opt the positive attributes of the manic phase of bipolar without any of the relationship destroying, drink and drug abusing, howling at the moon stuff then we could be on to something really exciting.

I’ll return to how we might achieve this in a later article. For now, I’ll leave the final word to Lord Byron, himself a manic depressive …

Lord Byron

Lord Byron


‘We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.’

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