The tortured artist stereotype
Madness and eccentricity go hand-in-hand with creativity. It’s easy to conjure up the image of the tortured artist. Take Sylvia Plath’s depression and suicide, Curt Cobain’s bipolar disorder and suicide, Vincent Van Gogh and his severed ear, also had bipolar. It got me wondering is this idea of the mad artist a stereotype or is there something inherently troubled about creative people? Psychologist and writer Carolyn Kaufman argues the angst-ridden artist is such a powerful stereotype, it makes a great story that people want to believe in it.
Many fiction writers battling inner demons find writing an outlet to express and purge anger and other emotions. I saw an interview with Patricia Cornwell, a modern crime author, in which she talked about her childhood. Her parents died when she was a young girl. The cruelty she suffered from her foster parents and the ensuing rage towards them is expressed through killing her fictitious characters in heinous crimes.
Similarly, JK Rowling wrote the Harry Potter books during a dark difficult period in her life, whilst going through divorce, living in poverty as a single parent and suffering depression. The books were her lifeline, providing focus and a way to express negative emotions through the underbelly of that magical Hogwarts world.
Writers and Mental Illness
Many famous authors and poets were and are afflicted with mental illness. Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe and Keats to name but a few had bipolar (manic depression). Aspiring writers whom I have encountered have admitted to having mental illnesses and, or a traumatic childhood. Victims of drug and alcohol addicted parents and deprived backgrounds often find that writing helps them heal and make sense of themselves and their experience through writing. Certainly writing can be an effective form of therapy and that’s not to say there aren’t any happy writers who are not battling inner turmoil. Perhaps the troubled writers of whom I’m aware are simply coincidental and represent a random cross-section of society.
According to Carolyn Kaufman there’s a positive correlation between mental illnesses such as bipolar and schizophrenia and creativity. Not that you have to have a mental illness to be creative, or that creativity causes mental illness. The argument presented by Frederick Goodwin and Kay Redfield Jamison (clinical psychologists and big players in bipolar studies) is that ‘a disproportionate number of eminent writers and artists have suffered from bipolar spectrum disorders, and that under some circumstances, creativity can be facilitated by such disorders.’
Personality Types and Writers
Mental illness and trauma aside, I’m curious to understand whether fiction writers tend to be a certain personality type. Being mindful of stereotyping, I’m sure they have very different personality traits, but the nature of writing is it’s a lonely profession. Surely an extrovert, for example, who craves action and human interaction wouldn’t want to spend every day alone at a desk locked in their own dreamy fictitious world? As well as imagination, I would assume writers also share qualities of emotional sensitivity, observation and introspection. Interesting that these qualities are generally not valued, rather our western society favours extroverts with a positive, sociable disposition.
The Enneagram personality type system suggests that many writers would be categorised as a number four: The Romantic (withdrawn ideal seeker). Characteristics are: seeks to understand themselves, sensitive, self aware, intuitive, seeks self-expression – often through the arts (writing, music and unconventional forms like tattooing and piercing).
This seems to corroborate also with the INFP – The Dreamer, defined by the Jungian Personality Type. These people are healers with a talent for language and writing, idealistic, selfless, highly intuitive, introspective, private and desire a meaningful path. According to Andrea Wenger, this personality is most likely to be a successful writer. Similarly, MBTI (Myers Briggs), a personality test based on the work of Carl Jung in his book Psychological Types, claims the most likely personality to enjoy success as a writer is the INFJ, which means: Introversion, Intuition, Feeling, Judgement. This person gets ideas from the internal world of thoughts and ideas.
Just how reliable are these personality trait systems? I suspect they are more art than science. MBTI is used by many corporations’ to recruit staff but according to The Guardian a lot of companies don’t have anything positive to say about it. There’s no scientific evidence and it isn’t recognised by the field of psychology.
What do you think? Do writers share similar personality traits? And is the perception of the mad artist real or just a stereotype?
Kay Redfield Jamison, Touched with Fire Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Free Press