Lots of people carry in their heads the image of the tortured artist: the writer/painter/musician whose brilliant artistic achievements spring from a soil rich with personal failures, miseries, addictions, and/or mental illnesses. Writing guru Julia Cameron persuasively argues that creativity does not require depression. Or agony. That well-adjusted artists are, actually, quite successful and productive–maybe even more so than the sorry cases the media likes to latch onto. And I do think that Cameron is right that building a career in a creative field requires a substantial level of mental health. It’s one’s rationally optimistic side that keeps one sitting down to work day after day, gives pep talks when needed, and also makes sure that one is well-fed, well-rested, and otherwise fueled for the creative act.
But I am not quite ready to let go of the tortured artist archetype. I am glowing with mental health these days (or so it seems to me), and I have been having a productive time of it. I’ve turned out several essays in the past three months, and I’m quite proud of some of them. But, to be honest, my production doesn’t come close to what I turned out in three of the most agonizing months of my life. A few years ago when a long-term relationship of mine came to an abrupt and incomprehensible end, I started a memoir. And in three months, I had written five hundred pages. I haven’t seen anything approaching that level of unrelenting inspiration since I recovered my emotional balance.
Another thing that characterized that period in my life was a rash of synchronicities–meaningful coincidences. One afternoon during that time, I was browsing a used bookstore for a Christmas present for the ex with whom I was still friends. I stumbled upon James Hillman’s superb book The Soul’s Code. I knew it would be perfect for T. and bought it on the spot. The next thing I knew, I was in a coffee shop reading it myself. I read and read and read, and every few pages exclaimed to myself, “This is just perfect for him! He’s going to love this!” I couldn’t wait to send it to him in France. Well, a few days later, T. sent me an email telling me about this great book he’d been reading: Le code caché de votre destin. It was the French translation of The Soul’s Code. Astounded, I asked him where he’d gotten it. He said he’d found it Wednesday morning at a bookstore in a nearby town–a mere 12 hours after I’d been reading the book in the coffee shop. “Well,” I told him, “I figured with mail being so slow over the Atlantic, I’d better send you your Christmas present by mental telepathy.”
Things like that happened frequently in the traumatic months following the end of our engagement. I’d always been pretty skeptical when T. talked about “synchronicities,” but that period made me a believer.
What’s odd is that few such coincidences have happened in the years since. Some have, but their frequency is nowhere near as intense. And the same goes for feelings of spiritual or intellectual epiphany. Those three months when I was rubbed raw by the emotions of confusion and loss produced an amazing crop of insights into the contents of my mind as well as important developments in my views about spirituality, philosophy, and even physics. Though I don’t wish to experience another emotional devastation like that, I have to say that I do miss the apparent window into the inner workings of the universe. And it’s my experience of that time that makes me wonder if there isn’t some important truth hidden in the stereotype of the tortured artist. Could it be that pain and emotional confusion open the mind’s eye?
Some psychological research in the past few decades has linked happiness with extroversion. The happier you are, the more extroverted you are, and vice versa. Even acting like an extrovert when you aren’t one can make you happier, it turns out. But I’m wondering about the flip side of this. Presumably, unhappiness and introversion also correlate to some degree. If unhappiness makes one turn inward (and I think my own experience is consistent with that), might it be that it focuses us not only on the processes of our own psyche but on those of the collective unconscious as well? Might there be something about negative emotions that narrows the mind’s attention and tunes us in to wavelengths that normally go unnoticed? I suppose the mechanism could be something as simple as giving us less motivation to distract ourselves with social activities and more desire to sit around just reflecting. Maybe pain quite simply holds us still–long enough for us to perceive some of the subtle stuff that usually slips by unnoticed.
Do you find that negative emotions reduce your focus on the material world and sharpen your perception of what lies beneath? If you’re relatively free from hurt these days, do you ever miss the clarity that seemed to go with it?