Originally published September 14, 2009
Last week in creative writing class we were shown a clip of Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love.” She was speaking about creativity, and the cost of being a creative individual. She also talked about the fact that many creative individuals suffer from one (or more) forms of depression, mental illness, or drug abuse. This got me thinking. As a creative individual myself, I wondered: is it possible to be creative and maintain ones mental stability simultaneously?
My first example is singer/songwriter Elliott Smith. Every time I listen to Smith’s music, I am almost moved to tears. His skills as a guitarist and his incredible lyrics define – at least to me – what a creative individual is. That being said, I find it tragic yet understandable, that his life ended in suicide at age 34.
When I think of creative individuals who were destroyed by their genius, I immediately think of musicians. Some of the world’s most gifted young stars, such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain, were deeply depressed. While this unhappiness created some of the greatest music of their respective time periods, it also led them further away from happiness. Sadly, each of these creative individuals turned to drugs, and eventually took their own lives.
One can also look towards the movie industry, as there are similar examples. I remember – as silly as some people might find this – feeling a personal sense of loss when actor Heath Ledger died. Not because I mourned the loss of an attractive male, but because I truly believed he was a supremely talented individual. He became immersed in the character of the joker in “The Dark Night.” Ledger medicated himself to cope with the character he created for the movie, yet could not shut off “the thoughts of the joker” in his mind. While the example of Ledger was not a suicide, but an accidental overdose, it was equally as tragic. As was the death of actor River Phoenix, who played Chris in the 1986 blockbuster “Stand By Me.” Phoenix – just like Smith, Hendrix, and Cobain – turned to drugs. His body couldn’t keep up, and his heart failed outside the Viper Room nightclub.
I also looked further into the past to find more examples of troubled creativity. My favourite artist – Vincent Van Gogh – cut off his own ear before taking his own life in 1890. During his life, Van Gogh sold only one painting, and faced constant financial strains. He also lived in and out of mental institutions, and led a highly emotional life. Poetry, prose and script writer Dylan Thomas is another example. He suffered from mental breakdowns and serious alcoholism, both of with were a result of his fear of losing inspiration. Thomas collapsed in 1953, at age 39, and passed away four days later.
After considering each of the above examples, I began to wonder if there was any hope for me as a creative individual at all. I spent an evening making a list of those who have struggled and prevailed, to try to find some answers. Right at the top of my list was one of my favorite bands, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. “Scar Tissue,” the autobiography written by front man, Anthony Kiedis, is one of my favorite books, and it tells a story of creative individuals who struggled, and eventually prevailed. Kiedis, along with band mates John Frusciante and Flea, faced years of drug addiction. Frusciante spent time in rehab, and at one point actually had to leave the band in order to recover. Despite their struggles, the members of the Chili Peppers managed to pull themselves together. They are still making music to this day, and plans are underway for another CD after a two year hiatus.
After writing down and organizing all of the above information, I realized that it is possible for a creative individual to struggle with the “dark side” of their craft, and prevail. True, some of us will sink deeper than others, and some will need assistance to be reunited with the positive side of life. The Chili Peppers are only one example of creative individuals who struggled, and overcame, yet there are so many more.
It IS possible to be a creative individual and maintain a hold on reality at the same time, but it is difficult. The key to success, (in my opinion) is being aware of the negative signs of an internal struggle before they begin to expand and manifest themselves. That was – for many of the above mentioned individuals – how the downfall began. I truly believe that somewhere, sometime, somehow, we will all have the opportunity to unleash our creative energy upon the world. We just have to be aware of how to pick ourselves up again if we fall.