Altered States by Dan Holloway

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.
(the stunning self-portrait by the wonderful writer/artist Cody James that provides the cover image for my collection (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.


JO said…
This is a great post, Dan. I couldn't agree more - illness, trauma, addiction is no more correlated with creativity than wearing size 6 shoes. And it's especially important than someone in your position stands up and says it, to deter those of us who are have different challenges in our lives (and are nevertheless creative) not to look for the glamour of mental health problems or addictions.
Dan Holloway said…
VEry important point - I think there are some (actually possibly, sadly, many) in the creative industires who like to look down their noses at anyone who's not a "party animal" and somehow equate that with being "inauthentic." and that puts just the same dangerous pressures on people as the fashion industry's obsession with body image
CallyPhillips said…
Yes, a great article. (And hope the fever is past now Mr Coleridge-Holloway!) I think there IS a relationship between mental health and creativity but like you, disagree with the 'standard' models which are churned out time after time.
My experience of working 'creatively' with people 'labelled' with mental health (and my own life experience) have led me to the conclusion that the link is fundamental. People have a basic NEED to be creative. When that need is thwarted -either by repression or ridicule or stigmatisation or lack of opportuity - it has an effect on mental health. Creativity is a means of expressing the individual. When it is denied or denigrated it has an impact on the individual. If art/writing etc is 'therapeutic' in my mind it's only as a therapy that is fundamental to each individual's well being in life. Not something to be 'imposed' on 'the broken'. I think this is a very important debate to have opened Dan and stand firm with you - taking any opportunity I can to state my simple case ALLOW CREATIVITY IN PEOPLE'S LIVES AS A BASIC FUNDAMENTAL and we will have a much mentally healthier community. It's not that 'mad' people are 'creative' or that you need to be 'mad' to be 'creative' its that NOT being allowed to be creative can send you 'mad.' And creativity is not an industry. It's a basic human characteristic. And people should all be encouraged to be creative in whatever way they want to/can from cooking to gardening to writing to painting because THIS is the part of life we need to embrace in order to live fully and healthily in our minds. Drink and drugs are neither the conduit to creativity nor the prerequesite to creativity. They may be the medication used when creativity isn't allowed to flourish freely. End of lecture. Back to the ebook festival. Where many people are being creative both as writers this very day!
Lydia Bennet said…
A really important post Dan. Good on you for saying it. Coleridge is often quoted as an example of a creative addict, but the fact that people can only think of him says it all! of course creative people can be addicts but their addiction or mental illness is as, if not more, likely to get in the way of their creative work as well as other aspects of their lives. Glad you're through the fever, great to see you coming out the other side with all guns blazing.
Dan Holloway said…
Cally "ALLOW CREATIVITY IN PEOPLE'S LIVES AS A BASIC FUNDAMENTAL" yes, yes, yes. So often and so sadly forgotten in the constant commodification of whether an activity increases people's economic usefulness (the irony being that stunting creativity decreases it) as though money in itself and the production thereof were somehow the ultimate good and not the flourishing of every human spirit.

Thank you, Valerie - and Cally. Not quite out of the woods but the guns are beginning to fire.
Nick Green said…
A recent experiment showed that house flies denied the opportunity to mate were more likely to turn to alcohol when it was offered to them. Creatures turn to other stimulants when their preferred source of stimulation (e.g. sex) is not available.

I think creativity may be similar - the buzz of creating may be like intoxication, and 'creatives' may possibly be susceptible to substitutes when the muse is away. Though in my case it's just playing Dungeon Village on my phone.
Dan Holloway said…
I absolutely think that people whose outlets are persistently denied will look for stimulus elsewhere (irritatingly addictive apps or otherwise) - that's very different from people who are getting to follow their creative impulses (though we're as susceptible to the internet I'll grant you!)
Jan Needle said…
Only just got back off a boat. Great post, Dan. Thanks
Susan Price said…
My partner and I often mooch round art galleries, usually with a sense of disappointment at seeing much the same stuff. We once wandered into a tiny gallery, in Pittenweem. After looking around, we met and were whispering about how wonderful this art was, how different, how original - who were these artists? Why weren't they being lionised?
It was only then that we discovered that it wasn't an 'art-gallery' at all. It was a charity for mental health, putting on display some of the art created by 'the mad'. Much of it seems to have been produced, as Cally suggests, because of a desperate, unstoppable need to express something.
Quite what I'm saying here, I don't know - but great post, Dan. Your fever dreams remind me of some my Dad once had. He was trying, in his fever, to design a set of buckets that would interlock, so you could carry several buckets of water at once - and also wanted to know what word it was that meant, 'going down the A456 to Quinton, round the roundabout and back up to Birmingham.' Despite a wide vocabulary, I was unable to help him with this.
Dan Holloway said…
Thanks, Jan - and I was absolutely riveted by yours yesterday.

Sue, that's priceless (no pun intended!) I'm guessing you never found out what the word was.
CallyPhillips said…
Sue/Jan - the word is 'horror' Or more appropriately 'the horror, the horror' (Thank you J.Conrad)
Dan, I've just realised that my 'normal' dreams may be more weird than your fever ones. I was trying to stop Richard Hammond from bleeding to death last night and all the hospitals were closed and I had to carry him because there was no transport. What the hell was that all about? Your fever dream is much better. How interesting the subconscious is though eh? When we accept we can't 'control' it and just learn to go with the flow and accept it as part of creative selves. Keep on creating Dan, Dan poetry man, if you can't rhyme it no one can.
CallyPhillips said…
Sue/Jan - the word is 'horror' Or more appropriately 'the horror, the horror' (Thank you J.Conrad)
Dan, I've just realised that my 'normal' dreams may be more weird than your fever ones. I was trying to stop Richard Hammond from bleeding to death last night and all the hospitals were closed and I had to carry him because there was no transport. What the hell was that all about? Your fever dream is much better. How interesting the subconscious is though eh? When we accept we can't 'control' it and just learn to go with the flow and accept it as part of creative selves. Keep on creating Dan, Dan poetry man, if you can't rhyme it no one can.
Dennis Hamley said…
I missed this yesterday, Dan and I'm very sorry. What a marvellous and necessary post! And how right you are, Cally. Allow Creativity in People's Lives as a Fundamental. Yes, yes, yes. I think that's what my Wednesday post was trying to say. And as far as Coleridge was concerned, once you've read Kubla Khan you'll look in vain for any constructive effect addiction had on him. Most of the time it brought him misery and a chronic inability to have a crap. In fact it could be said that the opium stopped him writing poetry, except for The Pains of Sleep, which depicts the excruciating horror it brought him.
Dan Holloway said…
excellent Coleridge point, Dennis!

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