Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Oddities and Quirks

There have been a number of scientific articles published over the last ten years linking heightened creativity to mental illness. The consensus seems to be that highly creative people tend to teeter on the brink of madness, but somehow manage not to fall in.

I consider myself a creative person, and I think there's a lot of truth to what scientists have discovered. I've always felt a little out of step with the rest of the world. And I will admit to some odd quirks that help me create. But let me diverge for a second before I reveal them... (Hey, isn't suspense the backbone to any good writing???)

When I was in grad school, I went to an excellent poetry reading on campus. I remember being in real awe of this poet's writing (though I can't remember his name now) and I summoned the courage to ask a question during the Q&A that followed. I asked him what inspired him, expecting a thoughtful answer about his creative process. William Carlos Williams, for example, was inspired by the contents of his ice box. e. e.cummings by onomatopoeia. Virginia Woolf by her surroundings. I wanted to hear what caught this man's attention, which words waved like red flags in front of his nose, I wanted to know this man's obsessions, and whose voices spoke to him in his head. Imagine my disappointment when he dismissed my question as sophomoric and curtly replied, "Life. I'm inspired by life."

The voices in my head were unanimous. "This dude is a fraud, and an arrogant, pinheaded fraud at that," they said.

I'm sure the man was inspired by life, but that's like a mathematician saying he's inspired by numbers. A poet who earns his living writing similes and metaphors should be able to explain his inspiration far more vividly than "life".

I've polled my other creative friends in the past, and to a one, every single friend I've asked identifies with a mental illness. Some feel their creativity is a little OCD. Others feel bi-polar. And yet others feel it's schizophrenic. And by this, I'm not saying they feel mentally ill--just that their creativity either manifests as a compulsion, an occasional surge of mania, or through an altered perception of reality.

I would say that I alternate between all three.

I'll admit, I'm a bit of an odd duck. I'm an only child, as well as an only grandchild, and only niece. I spent a large proportion of my childhood being told to go somewhere by myself, play quietly, and not bug anybody. Being female, I was given a lot of dolls. And being a budding writer, I was full of a lot of stories. I'm not sure when it began, but very early on, before I knew how to write, I started "composing" with the dolls. Instead of dressing Barbie for her big date with Ken and sending them on their way, I heard dialogue in my head. Barbie's inner dialogue. Ken's inner dialogue. Barbie's friends' gossiping about them. Her parents' angst. Ken's ex-girlfriend's tears. I imagined prologues and backstories. Potential conflicts. Resolutions. Over time, my Barbies became stock characters. Hawaiian Barbie with the hair who'd fallen out became the sickly sister to her more beautiful thick-haired twin. Valentine's Day Barbie with the bad haircut became Most Beautiful and Popular Barbie's sweet, but horribly misunderstood friend, until later, after she had a makeover with a bright yellow Crayola marker, she became the rebellious Punk Rocker. (That really shook up Barbie's world,let me tell you. Ken was into the bad girls.) Surfer Girl Skipper with the butt-length ponytail was Miss Popular until she was supplanted by the new girl--a more beautiful brunette, but after Ken dumped them both to star with Peaches and Cream Barbie in a Civil War biopic, both put their differences aside and joined Gem and the Holograms on tour.

Once I worked out my cast of characters, I began to think of them as actors on a stage. I'd build sets for them in the built-in bookcases in my bedroom. Design costumes for them. And walk them through scenes, over and over again, like a director. I think I got my start playwriting then. It took my freshman poetry professor to suggest I might be a talented playwright, but by then I'd already been composing plays for years in my head. People ask me how I write such great dialogue and the evasive answer is "It just comes to me." But the reality is I hear voices in my head a lot.

When I was writing my first play, my main character Rozsika would talk on and on and on about herself. I'd be in the shower... Did I ever tell you that I was the most beautiful woman in vaudeville? On the toilet... I turned down a hundred marriage proposals a day. In the car... The flower shops couldn't keep up with the demand. Isn't that silly? I said now isn't that silly? And finally I'd be like, "ENOUGH ALREADY! I'VE GOT IT! I'LL WRITE IT ALL DOWN IF YOU'LL JUST SHUT UP AND LET ME GET THROUGH THIS DATE IN PEACE!!!"

Yes, that's really what it's like inside my head. I'm sure people wonder why I stay at home alone so much, and why I'm neither bored nor lonely, but let me tell you, it's like always having company over.

My other odd quirk is the hand rubbing together. That's where the OCD comes in. Ever since I was a baby(?)/a toddler(?) I've rubbed my hands together automatically and compulsively, as if I was cold and trying to warm myself. As I got older, and alternately more self aware and analytical (plus more and more people began to comment on it), I discovered the hand rubbing was a kind of personal punctuation system. It was a way to move on from one thought to the next. I do it without thinking about it. If you videotaped me at my keyboard, you would see that with every change in paragraph I would push the period key, hit enter, pause, rub my hands together and move on to my next thought. (In fact, I just did it there.)

It's exhausting, all this conversing in my head and rubbing my hands together every time my brain lights on some new thought. Is it any wonder why I write in fits and starts? When I'm on a tear, I write without eating, sleeping, or thinking of anything but what I'm working on. And after I finish (kind of like now when I'm between projects) I'm too mentally fatigued to write a grocery list. (hand rubbing)

And so I turn to embroidery (uses my hands in a different compulsive way) and make dolls (to mentally compose my next characters) while I recharge.

I know you're probably reading this thinking I'm stranger than you probably thought, but welcome to my world nonetheless. :-)


  1. OMG I was just telling a friend about this -- he was teasing me about being one of the many crazy females he has to deal with (he's a cop) so I sent him an article about creativity and insanity... haven't heard back. Hmmmm! LOL

    BTW, I'm mainly OCD (I bite my nails) and bipolar (mood swings... I keep trying to channel the "down" ones but during those I think I'm a crappy hack...)

  2. i love the barbie characters. and who ken's dating or kicking to the curb. i think my insanity comes with the many balls that i'm determined to keep from falling out of the sky. :-)

  3. um, if we were in the same sandbox as a kid, we never would have known it for all the conversations in our heads and all the dramas our barbies were going through. by the way, i could do that with cars, too. i'd make my younger brother play with me, he'd want to play cars, i'd say, ok, but this is the mama car, this is the daddy car, this one's the big brother, the big sister and the baby car..ok, now this is what yours says...'

    and i snap my fingers rhythmically and say 'okay then' or 'doobie-doobie doo' for virtually every thought transition....

    once in a while if we're driving somewhere, and we're both quiet in the car, i'll ask dh what he's thinking and he says nothing. when he asks me the same and i answer, 'i was thinking of a poem about karl malden's ears and all they might have heard in the past 90 years' he laughs and says i'm crazy.

  4. Love this post, Brittany--and couldn't have been more timely reading. My dh just told me, as he does on occasion, that I should be on Prozac. Sigh....


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