It was brought up in my English class today that it seems as though all of the authors of the great classics had issues of one sort or another. What I would like to know is whether or not anybody else has noticed this trend and if there are any authors which go against this common perception. Open to discussion...and if you would like further clarification as to what I mean by issues...give me a minute to not be between classes
I think when someone's life is being examined, it's hard NOT to find some sort of issues. That would probably go for you or me or anyone. But I think if you look, you can probably find authors who don't have obvious "issues" as well.
Everyone has some sort of baggage, and when we write, we write what we know, whether consciously or not. So it can shine through in our writing at times as well. Even people like LM Montgomery or Charlotte Bronte had issues in their families and lives that come through in their writing.
As far as substance abuse, I'm not sure that there are proportionately more drunk writers than there are drunk people in other professions. Again, a famous writer is just exposed more, so we see it more.
I do know that it is probably a bad idea to start snorting coke because Stephen King did .
We were going over one of Nathaniel Hawthorne's short stories in class today, and it was brought up by one of the other guys in class that like all of the authors we have been studying has had some sort of like abandonment issue, or mommy/daddy issue, alcoholism, depression, mental instability, etc. And upon further discussion, it was true. It was theorized that these authors used writing as their outlet, their vent to help with these issues.
It was just a interesting observation that was made and I wondered if anybody else noticed it and what their thoughts on this were.
It's certainly not uncommon for great writers to have "issues" of one sort or another, but then it's not uncommon for most people, either - the difference will be that great writers have their lives examined in detail, often with a view to trying to identify why they WERE great writers - and "issues" are an easy out for biographers.
I'm certainly not convinced one NEEDS to have "issues" in order to be great. Indeed, in some cases it's quite possibly a handicap, and the writers are great despite, not because of, their issues.
I've had to reject the notion, at least as far as my own writing goes. I can't find any reflection of my own "issues" in my own work. (As for my "issues," they're kinda minor and really give me a lot of pain (or did), but I don't think they're the kind of things that concern anybody else.)
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I would actually disagree with the consensus thus far. No, not every writer has "issues", but possibly a disproportionate number do. However, this is a trend that is spread across the wide spectrum of art. I believe it lies at one of the roots of creativity. A catalyst for creativity is escapism, whether through painting, music, writing, etc. I would suspect many people take up these practices at very early ages or possibly later in life to escape from unhappy circumstances. Obviously, this is not the only reason to take up some form of art, but it is a prominent one. It may also have to do, somewhat, with how the brain develops. People with certain physiological disabilities develop higher functioning in other areas that often involve some form of art.
As I stated, I don't believe this is the only reason why someone would paint, play an instrument, or write. However, the emotional element of these practices are often a determining factor in success. People who have intense variances in emotion often have a reason for this related to childhood or mental health issues, including those of addiction.
I don't buy the whole "it was because they were famous" argument. Most of the people from history, whether they were painters, musicians, or writers, did not become amazingly wealthy, and many weren't even recognized much until after their deaths. However, they still had serious problems that went beyond the more typical "my dad didn't love me" feelings.
I believe there are many great writers who do not or did not have serious issues. I also believe that even these people were able to tap into their emotional wells and pull out something that made others want to drink from it.
At the moment, I am somewhere I do not want to be. Nothing seems right. I miss company and yet I can hardly stand having anyone around me. I know I have to do something to start the change but so far I don't know what will make me feel whole.
Considering what I've just written, I might become a legend one day.
I'd suggest that, should we choose to see it that way, we could conclude that every adult member of the human race has 'issues' of some sort. As life goes on, family members die, we find ourselves out of work, or unable to meet some commitment, or maybe unwilling to make the commitment in the first place. Some 'issues' are worse than others and sometimes we can ignore them, but it's a rare person who gets through life without ever hitting a few speed bumps.
From that persective then I conclude that this tendency to point to an author's 'issues' is just something we do in modern criticism of art - it lets us think critically, to try and draw lines of cause and effect between an author's life and his work. It presupposes write what you know, and in many cases justifiably so, because someone who wrote a deep and meaningful piece that stood out from other authors of his day probably wrote what he knew - and knew it because he lived it, in some way.
If there's anything I take from this as a writer though it's the expectation that if I do write something notable one day, there's a likelihood that some critic will go burrowing into my personal life trying to find a causality between it and my novel's themes. And perhaps by being aware of that I can also be prepared for it: Because even if we're aware of our foibles or motivations as authors, there's a good likelihood that whatever link a given critic finds is not going to be the one that really inspired our work.
And being forewarned is being forearmed, as they say.
[This message has been edited by BenM (edited March 28, 2011).]
Interesting commentaries given thus far. Some more fodder for the cannons perhaps...
philocinemas reminded me of a point brought up in class today by the professor: That possibly, as like a price for their gift of creativity, these authors had to pay the price of having these problems. (does that make sense??) Comparable to the savants of Orson Scott Card's later novels in the Ender series: They were biologically programmed (albeit unnaturally) to have some sort of OCD complex as a price for being geniuses to cripple them physically for being so gifted mentally. So, it was theorized then that as a price for having an extremely gifted mind for creativity, issues came with - a package deal if you will.
BTW, good point philocinemas about how it spreads to the whole spectrum of classical art: classic example - Van Gogh.
I worry for you Martin...but hey...if you make it to be famous, I can say I kinda knew you...
Ben. You bring up some good points also. We all have issues, however, it seems as though in these amazingly gifted and talented artists (whether literary or other forms of art) have much more pronounced ones. It does beg the question of whether or not it is as tchernabyelo postulated that it's merely a "cop out" for critics that they were so good 'cause they were mentally unstable or had some sort of underlying problem or suppressed problem (like homosexuality or uncontrollable sexual urges (this keeps being a recurring theme in most of the criticisms of our stories in class...I don't buy it though) or even insanity of some form or another). Also, is it merely something that we do from a modern standpoint: accuse these great classical authors of having some sort of mental breakdown or instability simply because we see it as being that way through the lens of history? Overall, good points.
Let's look at Orson Scott Card, since after all, this is an offshoot of his official website. I find him to be an exceptionally talented author. Does he have any issues of the drastic kind such as insanity, schizophrenia, suppressed sexual urges, etc.? Not to my knowledge. Thus...he has broken the mould along with many others...but then again, he's not "classical".
It's an interesting subject for discussion, is it not?
(and sorry if I'm sounding too much like a debater...it's not intentional, nor am I one)
Do you think it's something that is almost an invented hype, like what you're suggesting OSC did with the Ender's Shadow savants, a great great talent, but along with comes some kind of weakness? Some real human failing? Think how often people follow celebrity stories hoping to find that chink in the armor.
Fundamentally, humans are insecure about themselves, their standing in the world, etc. I think this leads to problems (drinking, drug abuse, many more crazy things I don't care to spend time listing because) - but really to me it's a set of excuses.
We're insecure. Life deals us many challenges. We can meet those challenges or shy away, we can achieve our potential or fail to do so. We can be satisfied with ourselves or be disappointed that we haven't achieved more success/fame/notoriety/wealth. Fundamentally, though, these are choices we make.
I feel like when we look back at an author's work and attribute some part of the greatness of the work to some issue the author had in his/her life that we're cheating a bit. Because the greatness of the work came from the person. So the person had issues, granted. We've all got issues. But the person achieved something great with a work of art/writing/poetry/composition/performance/etc. We should appreciate those items, those contributions, for their own merit - and interpret them through our own experiences and tastes. Truthfully, I don't care for much of classic literature, particularly not american lit, sorry! But I really appreciate a good *story* and its ability to take me away from my here and now and my issues and life challenges, and transport me somewhere else entirely. One of many reasons I love speculative fiction is because the elsewheres are so darn fascinating for the most part!
Sorry - quite a bit of a soapbox--but to me, explaining away anyone's achievements as being due to some kind of issue is just silly. Either they achieved or they didn't. And either I appreciate it, or I don't.
quote:That's because it's for English Majors to decipher the author's psychological problems. Otherwise, they would have nothing to write about in their term papers.
That is why I could never study English in school. They always expected me to see some deeper meaning to every story.
I remember reading the short story The Veldt by Ray Bradbury and my English teacher having us evaluate what Mr. Bradbury meant by writing this story.
I turned in a paper that said (I still have the paper):
"Mr. Bradbury wrote The Veldt to entertain his reader as he has proven quite capable of doing. For us to question his motives at this time, given his track record of amazing works, seems a petty waste of time."
Any guess what grade I got?
Edited to Correct Italics coding.
[This message has been edited by EVOC (edited March 29, 2011).]
My question is how much of the suffering or issues of these classical writers were common for their time? Urgg, does that make sense?
When we talk about the issues of Hawthorne or any other classical writer, are we considering it in the context of their culture or are we projecting them into ours? How many people in Hawthorne's time had mommy and daddy issues (because parents then are not the same as parents are now), alcohol abuse, and untreated mental instability? I bet it was a lot more than what we see today. Was Hawthorne's issues unique for his time, or were they prevalent in his society? Honestly, I don't know.
But I think it is important to consider before anyone can make sweeping statements like issues and suffering make someone a better writer or artist.
My point is: if people back in the times of the classic authors had more issues than we do now, it would not be surprising if most of the classical authors had issues. It would be a reflection of their society and not necessarily their ability to tell good stories.
I'm not sure if this is the case, I'm just wondering if it is.
I think it all relates back to conflict. Stories are about conflict. If you want to be a great writer you can either invent/imagine conflict, or you can draw on your own personal experiences of conflict.
IMO: People who are conflicted can make good writers, but that doesn't mean all good writers are people who are conflicted.
There are plenty of people with issues who don't do anything grand at all, but live out their ordinary lives like most of us. Being plagued by mental illness, addiction, abuse, or another source of issues is, I think, a human condition, not a facet of creativity.
A hundred years later, no one analyzes Betty Jones from next door who suffered from depression and eventually cut off her own ear and then took her life, because Betty Jones from next door didn't do anything with her life that people (who don't know her) think was remarkable. That we don't remember all these ordinary souls who've suffered from the same things great artists have suffered from, tends to skew the data to look as though only creative geniuses have these issues.
Now, it may be true that a greater percentage of creative geniuses have issues than the larger population, so there may indeed be some correlation. But I think it's a fallacy to say, as so often is said, that e.g. mental illness <==> creative genius.
Now there is a school of thought, backed up by a number of psychological studies, that creativity and depression go together. It is not that one causes the other, as there are plenty of examples that have only one or the other. However, there is an underlying element common to both that is involved in the mechanism leading to both. The commonality is the tendency to reflect, to think about things, chew the cud.
People that live in the moment, that don't think much about things, that are prepared to forget about the past, are less likely to get depressed. People that don't think about things are less likely to put the time into learning a field that requires thinking about things. Creative endeavors draw people that think about things, and therefore draw people from a sample that is already biased towards depression. So it is little wonder that they have higher incidences of depression, compared to the typical population.
Great issue. I've wondered about this myself many times and frankly I'm up to here with books that dwell on the author's issues. Dark, ugly and consumed with self. There are great works out there about dark, ugly aspects of life but it's the story and how it's written that makes it great.
I think that's why I love MG and YA, where it's all about storytelling. I kid will put it down if it doesn't engage. Simple as that. It's pure and it has to be good.
The mathematician in me makes me question the analysis but I haven't done the legwork. A broken clock is right twice a day. So as for dysfunctional author = creative genius, it's good to remember that a correlation does not translate to causality.
If there is some real study that relates depression and creativity, I'd have to examine it. A great writer becomes great because he writes and perfected his craft. Let's accept it for that.
I've entertained the notion of a graduate degree in English/Literature/MFA/Writing but here's enough reason not to. I'll get more from this site then I would from Starsin's class.
Our very humanity means we're flawed. Measuring the degrees to which one author is vs. another, is contemptible.
[This message has been edited by Grayhog (edited March 29, 2011).]
On English majors seeing in my work what I can't see in it---well, I can't see the back of my head, but I'm not spending my time writing so that people can spend their time looking at the literary equivalent of the back of my head. I write to entertain, though more and more it seems I'm writing to entertain myself.
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Lots of good stuff in here. I particularly liked what BenM had to say. Made me think of the discussion between the Queen Bugger and Rooter about how humans are constantly telling stories to try and explain what they don't really understand.
But for my own bit, I would ask if maybe the question is wrong. If art is a result of a cruel and abusive world, then we should have far more great artists because there are far more suffering people. Perhaps it could be said that in some people that abuse and cruelty frees the creativity that was already there, but I think rather it is goodness and life that brings out greatness. The issues are merely trying to get in the way.
Consider what makes a hero, is it that he suffers or that he overcomes? I think the same is true of a true artist, the issues fail to overcome them...or at least in their greatness we're seeing a struggle that could overcome them.
Someone in this thread, I do not recall whom, made a very good point in that most people with mental illnesses do not become artists. With this, I completely agree. I work with people, a lot of people over the years, with mental illnesses and none of them have been artists of any kind, at least not to my knowledge. Most have been content to watch television and allow life to pass them by until something or someone disrupts their comfort zones, which happens regularly.
However, true mental illness is something that is statistically rare, especially with physiological causes. It also tends to be debilitating. However, within art there seems to be quite a few who become successful, whether in life or death. The field of science also seems to have a disproportionate number of individuals with similar qualities.
These people are not pervasive within other areas of expertise - not that I have seen. Most are typically unsuccessful with the jobs or other endeavors they attempt. So, my question is: How is it that a population of individuals, and I will even include addicts, tend to fail at almost everything, but a select few become very successful at the arts?
I agree that there are many writers who do not have notable "issues". And yes, I agree that we all have things happen in our lives that are tragic - OSC lost a child. I do not dispute any of this. What I am saying is that those that do have more serious problems and are able to express these creatively, tend to have a disproportionate amount of success over their own popluation as well as over those who do not seem to have them.
[This message has been edited by philocinemas (edited March 29, 2011).]
quote:However, true mental illness is something that is statistically rare, especially with physiological causes. It also tends to be debilitating.
I know that you work in the field, but such a statement doesn't accord with my knowledge. I personally know at least 15 people that have suffered from what used to be called mental breakdowns, at least 7 of which ended up in a psych ward for a period of time. Mild depression, the common cold of mental illness, is said to occur in 30% of people at least once in their life, while Major depression varies between 3% and 17%, depending on the country. Post-natal depression also is not rare, and has known physiological causes. So the suggestion that it is rare surprised me.
Approximately one quarter of the adult population in the US have a diagnosable mental illness in any given year. About 20% of children do. The total average is below 25%. However, ADHD accounts for 4% of adults and 9% of children. There are also several other disorders that I would place in a lower tier of lifetime impact. Severe mental disorders affect 6% of the population, autism affects about 10%, bipolar DO affects about 2.5%, schizophrenia affects around 1%, and depressive disorder affects about 7%.
[This message has been edited by philocinemas (edited March 29, 2011).]
I don't think it should matter if an artist has a mental illness. No more then what ethnic background they are. It should be about the quality of their work.
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Unfortunately, I can see societal factors that have caused most famous writers in the past to be caucasian males. I cannot state the same about why there would be a high percentage with severe emotional problems, of any race or gender.
I am NOT stating that just because someone has "issues" it automatically makes them a better writer. I HAVE EMPHASIZED THIS POINT OVER AND OVER. All I am saying is that people with strong emotional problems represent a higher than average percentage of the writer population, especially prior to the 1930s.
[This message has been edited by philocinemas (edited March 29, 2011).]
I know my schizoaffective disorder didn't start till 2003. It changed everything. It also made it harder to write, but not impossible. For years I had a massive creative block. Then again I'm not published...yet
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I have never sought a diagnosis, but I have symptoms of OCD and ghost symptoms of another more debilitating disorder. However, I am very much aware of my deficiencies, and I compensate through extra time and effort and awareness of these "issues". Seeking a diagnosis would serve very little purpose for me other than helping me understand my eccentricities. Posts: 2003 | Registered: Jul 2008
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Good points all. Let's try not to get too argumentative here.
KayTi asks a rather pertinent question: is it an invented hype? Something that makes the author/artist seem to be more than they really were? A way for motivational speakers to capitalize on the past and say things like "Well...<insert famous classical name> had <insert issue> and look at what they did. You can overcome it!!" or is it something else? Also, that is true KayTi - we are fundamentally insecure. For some, this leads them to greatness (look at those who were determined to leave their "mark"), however, like you said, it leads some to the opposite end of the spectrum. However at the end, I'm inclined to agree: What they had "wrong" with them is irrelevant. Either they wrote well, or they put me to sleep (Charlotte Bronte anybody??).
MAP - that is also a good point. How many of the issues that these writers were commonplace for their eras? Alcoholism didn't really become a diagnosed issue until (I want to say...) recent history. I think that more often than not we do view these greats as through our slightly tainted lens of history and attribute to them more, or even less, than what was really there.
elilyn, that is true. Good stories have believable conflict of some kind, either internal to the MC or external. And that's what makes them great, is it not? How good the conflict is presented, how well and realistically the characters react, etc. I think that is a true statement though:
quote: People who are conflicted can make good writers, but that doesn't mean that all good writers are people who are conflicted
Grayson: also good points. There are hundreds, if not thousands of people out there with "issues" who don't amount to anything, but as is pointed out by others, it seems that within the artistic community, there seems to be a disproportionate amount. I don't think that it's been discredited that there are many ordinary people with similar or the exact same problems. I think what the difference is that many of these artists took that and made it a strength, while far too many use it as a crutch and let it rule them.
Brendan: if you can get us some of those studies, that would be very interesting to look over. If you could also elaborate a little bit on that commonality some more too it would be interesting. How else are "normal" people different from these creative depressed people?
Grayhog...just a suggestion, but perhaps if you have the time and ability, you could either find some analyses by others, or come up with your own (re: depression correlates with creativity). If you want my help, I'd be more than willing to do what I could. And tiny nitpick...my screen name is small letters...no "proper" noun about it. :P
enigmaticuser, that is a good thought. Perhaps the question is wrong. However, the question wasn't whether an abusive world/society generates better artists, but whether others noticed a prevalence of psychological problems among many of the "greats" of art, particularly literature and whether or not there are any who break that "mould" as well as whether or not it was these things that made them "great". Does that make sense?? But good thought nonetheless: we should have far more. But do we? Let's look at how many "indie" bands exist today? How many garage bands? How many unnoticed artists within the community? How many talented authors? How many artists of one medium or another (music to literature to art)? But it is true: what makes a hero a hero? What makes a good artist a good artist?
philocinemas - I have no idea how to answer that question. But it does seem to be incongruous almost, doesn't it?
And then....conflict for the rest of the posts. Let's not get confrontational about this. It's all just merely postulating and theorizing. For all of this, at the end of the day, we can't really truly say whether or not they had problems and if those problems were what made them good or not. I personally believe that what makes them good is our own opinions. It is US that makes them good, not necessarily even them. What I perceive as good, another may perceive as crass and crude. It is a large amount of us that see it as good that seems to make it good according to popular culture (but then again...isn't that the definition of popular?)
I feel your pain Philo. My OCD was almost debilitating during my teenage years. It's become much more manageable over time, although it required a significant lifestyle change to really get a handle on it. Medication and therapy were both wastes of time.
The most frustrating thing about it is my reading. With my own writing I have no problems with rereading, but when I'm reading books, especially ones I'm really enjoying, I'll find myself going over each sentence two or three times. Sometimes I'll snag on a paragraph and can't seem to get past it. Turning pages is the worst and another place I often get snagged.
Considering I've read easily thousands of books in my life, it's a major source of frustration for me.
A small consolation is that I've heard mental illness and high intelligence often go hand in hand. Which of course must certainly be true in my case .
A thoughtful thread of responses which make me think. I appreciate your suggestion to do the research but this is not an issue for me, or one I wish to spend time on outside of this thread. I find it fun to banter about it and see what members think. I also enjoy sharing my opinion.
Grayhog: Meh...it was merely a thought for something to burn spare time with. 'cause so many of us have so much of it, no? But nonetheless...'twould be very interesting to see the research. Perhaps one day when I have the time, I'll do it myself. But for now, working two jobs and going to school...I barely have time for homework! and the "nitpick" about my name was just messing around...don't take too much of what I say seriously .
But please...don't think that I was seriously suggesting it as something to do. It was merely something that would be interesting to see, and if somebody could find or do the research...would be more interesting. But it was just a trivial thought. Possibly one I should have kept to myself...but...I didn't. If I somehow slighted you with the suggestion or the above response...I apologize.
I would read the research too but there's a lot involved with doing it well.
This site is engaging and I find it a black hole of time when I reappear on the other side asking myself where the last hour went. It's the first I've written/posted on a blog and I allow myself this indulgence because I justify the time spent as learning more about writing in some fashion or form.
2 jobs, school and posting here, you manage your time well enough. My problem is actually doing what I set out to do.
A side thought (that just occurred to me)...a lot of times, I've run across someone who acted like a jerk, and was told "this person has issues"...now, I wouldn't want any problem I've had or I'm having to be an excuse for my bad behavior---I mean, I'm willing to act boorish and obnoxious straight out---and I don't think any right-minded person would want to be excused that way.
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There are "artists" out there who use their "art" as an excuse to get away with things that are not allowed to "mundane" people.
There are also "artists" out there who get a lot of mileage out of their "issues" and make excuses for themselves because of them.
For my part, my heroes are the artists who make art without making a big deal of themselves or their issues, and who accomplish their goals of making art in spite of any issues they may or may not have.