Note: The following is the second installment in a series by Dan Workman on creative people and their mental health. This article was originally published in a slightly different form on the professional practice website Houston Therapy. To read the first installment on isolation, please go here.
Throughout history, there have been inferences that ‘madness’ is related to creativity. One of the earliest myths supporting this idea was about Pythia, the Oracle at Delphi, who offered enigmatic prophesies as she inhaled the fumes from a crack in a rock at the Temple of Apollo.
Van Gogh’s paintings became more iconic as his mental health declined. Hemingway and Burroughs seemed to be able to write only while intoxicated. Artists and creators of every stripe have publicly shared or displayed mental health and substance-abuse challenges.
The correlation between mental difference and creativity may have been summed up best by Lord Byron: “We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.”
While there may be a correlation, there is no case for causation. Just because creativity and a mental difference may show up together does not mean one causes the other. Perhaps more important, improving one’s mental health does not necessarily corrupt one’s connection to their Muse. In fact, there is research and anecdotal evidence that suggests creativity is not diminished but, instead, enhanced by improving mental health or treating addiction.
Finding a creative flow does not require partnering with a broken Muse. The stereotype of the wounded artist shortchanges the beauty and utility of the creative process. My passion as a therapist is to identify and leverage my client’s creativity to enhance mental health and expand their talents.
So, about that Muse. In ancient Greek religion, the Muses were the source of knowledge for poetry and song. Since then, the concept of having and using one’s Muse has been generalized to describe the origin of artistic or intellectual inspiration. Our Muse provides the motivation and ability to find a creative state where ideas and actions seem to flow from an unknown external source.
I began to research how people drop into creative or meditative states — how creatives find their flow (channel their Muse) and do something with such focus that basic human needs such as food, sleep, and sex are temporarily ignored.
Some listen to just the right music to set the mood for their focus. Some engage in short rituals (prayer, affirmations), exercise, or look at, read, or listen to things that inspire them. This process seems to enable getting closer to one’s Muse: turning all attention and focus to the flow of ideas and behavior coming from within. Hello, Muse! Let’s dance! I have an idea that I have been playing with, and that distraction is a natural process in finding a creative flow and channeling one’s Muse.
It’s a small step to see how maladaptive thoughts and behavior can also channel the Muse — to find flow. We return to the artist who becomes dependent on substances to ‘shut out the noise of the world’ so that they can create. We find the creative who’s mental distraction may originate in emotional or thought disorders. It becomes easier to see how Hemingway may have clung to drink in order to write. Van Gogh may have been fearful of any change to his inner state, lest he lose access to the one thing that helped him find order in his world.
The main problem here is the physical, emotional, and perhaps, spiritual cost. Being tethered to a substance to ‘get there’ puts a barrier between the individual and their Muse. Similarly, lingering in a maladaptive, consequence-ridden state of mental health to cope with the fear of losing one’s flow can have severe consequences.
The data and research on this subject will undoubtedly be impacted by the tenor of our uncertain times. Pandemic and politics raise the stakes, providing new challenges to stay in touch with one’s Muse and find one’s flow. These overarching themes are so common in my practice right now. I’m learning a lot with the help of my Muse. I hope to deepen the flow in therapy to discover relevant and useful insight with my patients.
Dan Workman is a Houston-based psychotherapist. He’s a Trauma Fellow trained at the University of Houston, and has 20 years’ experience working in the recovery community. He’s also had a 29-year career as a recording engineer and producer, working on platinum records and Grammy-winning performances. Workman specializes in clients who self-identify as being creative; such clients have an additional layer of complexity to their personality and their ability to organize their world.