Sunday, 20 February 2011

It may be ‘deeply unwise’, but keep on trying ... and have a good time


Recently I've been researching the links between mental health and creativity and have come across the following extracts from Daniel Nettle's book Strong Imagination. Nettle is an anthropologist and a psychologist and he provides this warning to those of us who aspire to produce creative works:

“Now to take on a major imaginative project requires remarkable chutzpah. If, dear reader, you aspire to be a writer, poet, actor, artist, film director, or musician, then however you sell it to yourself, you must believe something like the following statement to be true. You have to believe that you can do something that is difficult, in a way that has never been done before, which will be of so much interest to your fellow creatures that they will reward you for it. But I have news for you, I am afraid. You are almost certainly wrong. I say this purely on statistical grounds. The vast majority of would-be writers, artists, musicians, and actors never become known for anything. This doesn't mean they don't have a good time trying, but it does mean that they were probably, in some orthodox sense, deeply unwise this to follow the path that they did.”

While reminding us that the creative impulse is in a sense a pathological one, Nettle is right to point out that, however wrong-minded creative people might be in an orthodox sense, we might at least have a good time trying to produce something. If we don't at least have a good time trying then it becomes even more questionable why we should bother:

“Writing, painting, and composing are lonely occupations, which lack the online feedback that in other domains, such as sports and social interaction, keeps us motivated, concentrated, and happy. Any feedback that comes, and mostly it won’t, will come years later when the person is working on something quite different. To ride through a difficult and enervating task, week in, week out, quite alone, without any validation from the outside world, one has to sustain an unreasonably enthusiastic mood. In fact, one has to be in a mood which, from the point of view of most other activities in life, is pathological. One should not blast on with unabashed cheerfulness in a relationship that gives nothing back for months, or persevere in economic activity that seems to be yielding nothing. The adjustive function of the mood system should draw us gently away from these things. But the creator of imaginative products has to remain abnormally, almost irrationally, buoyant, and, to be successful, he has to produce a lot ... What distinguishes the most eminent producers from the rest in any cultural field is not that their work is consistently excellent. It is mainly that they produce a lot, and the more they produce, the more likely it is that some of it will be excellent.”

from Strong imagination - Madness, creativity and human nature by Daniel Nettle (Oxford University Press, 2001) pages 153 to 154

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Tony Gillam is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at the University of Wolverhampton and Visiting Lecturer at the University of Worcester. An award-winning mental health nurse, he is also a freelance writer and musician, has published numerous articles and is the author of 'Reflections on Community Psychiatric Nursing'.