Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Insanity and Creativity

The word "insane" is one we tend to toss around easily without much thought most of the time (never mind the word "crazy"), but the details of mental illness and imbalance are at once horrible and fascinating.

I never really considered it as a resource for writing until I was initially trying to get to know the characters in my first Varin novel, and decided that in order for it to be as realistic as I wanted, the "evil king" character had to be inbred and mentally imbalanced. That sent me off into a whole bunch of encyclopedia research on mental illness until I found pathologies that matched his behavior (in this case, obsessive-compulsive disorder and paranoia). For a time, my husband worked at a company that offered continuing education courses to medical professionals, and several of the seminar topics related to mental illness, so I gathered quite a bit there as well.

Then I read The Midnight Disease: the drive to write, writer's block, and the creative brain, by Alice Flaherty.

Oh wow.

That book is a revelation, and I encourage all of you out there to pick it up. It's not a difficult read at all, and it's amazing. The author talks about her own experiences with hypergraphia - the uncontrollable urge to write - and about all kinds of famous writers and creative minds which also happened to be not quite balanced.

One of the most fascinating things that Flaherty discusses is the possibility of an evolutionary link between creativity and insanity. Insanity is not exactly what you'd call an adaptively successful trait - but if it's the unfortunate product of overconcentration of the genes that give us creativity, then you can easily see how the success of highly creative individuals in natural selection would mean that the possibility of insanity would never quite go away.

I compare it to the case of sickle-cell anemia. A person with two matching genes for sickle-cell anemia gets the disease and is very ill. But a person with only one of these genes has a higher resistance to malaria than a person who doesn't have the gene at all. So the adaptive success of the single-gene trait leads to the continued presence of the disease itself.

Since reading that book, I have in fact written a character who suffers from hypergraphia. Let's just say it was a serious inspiration.

At this point I'm going to have to close this post - but I think I'll come back to the topic because there are a couple of things I'd love to talk about that relate to it tangentially, specifically:
1. unreliable narrators
2. narrative voice

Hopefully I'll get to writing those in the next couple of days. If in the meantime you have anything you'd like to contribute to my preparation for such a discussion (questions, comments, etc.) please feeel free to comment.


  1. Very interesting. I think a lot of people are maybe preoccupied with mental illnesses (I certainly am)... or at least intrigued by them. It makes for a very interesting theme (or at least element within a piece). As it is, something me and my writing group had set up as assignments was to write a piece where the main character is insane, and another where (interestingly enough since you mentioned it) the narrator is unreliable.

    I'm definitely going to check out that book by the way.

  2. Well, an insane narrator is definitely unreliable! But not all unreliable narrators are insane...

    It's also possible to do a main character who is insane without having the narrator be insane. Easier, I think. But I always like to dig into my POV characters, voice-wise.

  3. I guess it depends on what effect you're going for. Having a sane narrator talk about an insane character strikes me as being a rather sad story. Though, having an insane character who is also the narrator would be almost like giving the reader an inside look to an insane person's thoughts. Not something they generally get to see.

    And, finally, an unreliable narrator who is perfectly sane would seem to me to make for an interesting concept. How could the reader truly trust what they are reading? What clues would they have that the narrator is unreliable? Maybe something in the story happens that contradicts what the narrator previously said. Or maybe something the narrator comments on clearly contradicts what is currently happening. From that first instance of contradiction, the reader will constantly be second guessing everything the narrator relates. I think it would be pretty comical actually.

  4. Nice post, Juliette. I'd love it if you did a piece on unreliable narrators... I think all readers find them fascinating, adding as they do an extra layer to any story, but I'm also interested in them from teh writer's POV.

    Keep up the good work!

  5. Thanks, Dario!
    It's always great to have you stop by the blog - and I see to my delight that you've joined my follow list. Yay! I'm preparing a post on unreliable narrators right now.

  6. Of course, you can have a sane character who is utterly convinced that the other character is insane...until he sees for himself that the eldritch horrors/time-travelling terminators/zombies/etc are real.