Why Do We Idolize Lost Souls? On Madness and Creativity

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” - Jack Kerouac

As a therapist and writer, most of my idols end up on my couch. The romanticized debauchery I adore in On The Road and Ham on Rye sometimes makes its way into my office. On occasion Bukowski and Hemingway will be seated across from me and stories of drinking, broken relationships and lost hope are shared. As clients, they are not glorified or celebrated for their tribulation, but rather consoled. Their secrets are expelled like demons, purged into the silence of the office walls.

Insanity and Creativity

It is common to hear writers talk about the interplay of madness* and creativity. From Poe to Pollock, my favorite writers, artists and musicians are/where a collection of alcoholic, addict, womanizing, Bipolar, suicidal, self-destructive madmen. At the same time, each exude a passion for life that burns like a comet set for the sun. Out of their misery they find humor -- they find meaning.

Many of the world's most revered creative minds died by their own hand, through suicide or excess. Writers and musicians are infamous for their alcoholism, often played off poetically as a statement against the status quo. For them, a normal existence is stoic, routine, safe and dull. The authentic life therefore embraces insanity, excess, freedom and excitement.

I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me. ― Hunter S. Thompson

Occasionally, we young writers like to envision ourselves as a Kerouac, Hemingway, Bukowski or Thomson while seated at a local bar or burning across the desert interstate. We drink, travel, and search for freedom in habits that end up imprisoning us. We live by the example of individuals who were great writers, but unhappy human beings. We seek authenticity in the shallowest of waters hoping that if we live like the greats we will become one of them. A lot of the time, we end up with bad living habits instead of great writing habits.

We fail to realize the magic isn’t at the bottom of some bottle or the end of a lighter, it is right at our feet. At times, we may find ourselves seeking truth through books instead of our own eyes. We mistake insanity and self-destruction for genius.  The assumption is that madness is freedom and insanity is enlightenment.

Some lose all mind and become soul, insane.
some lose all soul and become mind, intellectual.
some lose both and become accepted
— Charles Bukowski

However, there's weight to this Bukowski quote. It may be that living on the edge of sanity, as many writers claim to, allows us to bear witness to the full spectrum of the human condition. Creativity exists in the balance of mind and soul, using words to express the unspeakable. Some of the best writing I have come across is the raw account of the writer’s barest moments, somehow pulling beauty out of their deepest struggle.

It may be that writing is a refuge for the compulsive. We etch away at this blank space hoping that by filling the page we also fill our own emptiness. Each word is a testament to our existence, a breath into the voiceless silence. Writers strive to be bare, to dig down to the marrow just to know the foundation is there. Page after page we watch as the process unfolds.

However, there is nothing romantic about suffering.

It is sobering to witness someone struggle through anxiety, addiction, mania, and desperation. The shimmer of the pulp pages becomes opaque watching a man engulfed by his own fear and guilt. As practitioners, we are advised to use writing therapeutically. It can be used to draw out the subconscious and remedy an intruding conscience. By telling our story, we vent submerged ghosts. Few are able to tidy and publish these spirits into a chord, paragraph or a splatter of paint and give our shadows the space to dance and play.

Be Bold Enough To Be Bare

Maybe we find perfection in their brokenness. We empathize with their ability to remain authentic in the face of adversity. It can be difficult to balance my values as a writer with my role as a therapist. Though, when I am able appreciate the holy mess of life, the two worlds converge. In each client I see a dormant Whitman and the gilded lunacy of my idols corrodes.

I admire the bravery of writers, especially those who suffer most through the work, because I recognize how difficult it is to make one’s self vulnerable in the face of hopelessness. In order to create they must expose a precious part of their soul, to lay out for the world to see. I was once enamored by the glint of the tortured artist. Now I admire Bourdain and Burroughs’ courage to make themselves bare. It is not their madness that is inspiring, but their passion for life in spite of it.

Madness is not necessary for creativity, but rather provides an unconventional way of viewing the world. There are plenty of writers who take care of themselves and produce profound work. Henry Rollins, Thich Nhat Hahn, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bertrand Russell, Frank Zappa and Rumi to name a few.

I have lived on the lip of insanity, wanting to know reasons, knocking on a door. It opens. I've been knocking from the inside.― Rumi

Not all madmen are great artists and not all artists are madmen. The dichotomy of sane and insane is arbitrary anyhow, varying between cultures. There are only people, all of whom feel and experience. Some are able to share these experiences better than others and I am grateful for that fact. I am also grateful for you taking the time to read this, hopefully the words here resonate.

If you hate your parents, the man or the establishment, don't show them up by getting wasted and wrapping your car around a tree. If you really want to rebel...outearn them, outlive them, and know more than they do. - Henry Rollins

*Note: I hate the word madness. I use it here because it is  used by writers I admire to describe the creative spirit.

Photo by Drew Coffman