The Tortured Genius Just Can’t Help It, Or Why Scott And Zelda Went Mad

by Edward Platt
Article from http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/

Creative types can’t stop thinking, can’t stop second guessing and revising, and aren’t much fun to be around. But new studies show it’s not like they have a choice.

Knowing his wife was upset with him for spending more time with his typewriter than with her, F. Scott Fitzgerald hatched a plan. He wasn’t proud of many of his short stories (he only included 46 of his 181 short stories in his published collections), but he knew that in order to win back his wife he’d have to whip up something quickly. Working from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m., he churned out “The Camel’s Back” for The Saturday Evening Post for a fee of $500. That very morning, he bought Zelda a gift with the money he had made.

“I suppose that of all the stories I have ever written this one cost me the least travail and perhaps gave me the most amusement,” he commented in the first edition of Tales of the Jazz Age. “As to the labor involved, it was written during one day in the city of New Orleans, with the express purpose of buying a platinum and diamond wristwatch which cost six hundred dollars.”

This was in 1920, and Zelda’s frustrations could still be assuaged with a well-timed gift. (After all, it was only after Scott had the money and prestige from publishing This Side of Paradise that she agreed to marry him earlier that year.) It wasn’t long though until Zelda had grown so fed up with Scott’s drinking and self-isolation that she lashed out, cheating on him with a French naval aviator while Scott was working on The Great Gatsby in the South of France. From then on, their marriage devolved into arguments and a devastating cocktail of debt, drink, and manic depression.

“Zelda’s spending sprees, her ‘passionate love of life’ and intense social relationships, her melancholic response to disappointment and the relatively late onset of her illness (she was born in 1900) point toward a mood disorder, as does the alternation between frank psychosis and a sparkling, provocative personality,” noted a 1996 article in The New York Times Magazine that asked “How Crazy Was Zelda?”

The Fitzgeralds are perhaps the best—or at least the most intriguing—example of writers whose talents, when mixed with depression and vices (like alcohol and spending sprees), burned brightly then collapsed calamitously.

But of course, it’s not just the Fitzgeralds who battled depression and led lives that eventually spun out of their control. Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Stephen King, Anne Rice, David Foster Wallace, and even J.K. Rowling are just a few of the writers who have been struck by the illness that Hemingway once referred to as “The Artist’s Reward.”

The common theory for why writers are often depressed is rather basic: writers think a lot and people who think a lot tend to be unhappy. Add to that long periods of isolation and the high levels of narcissism that draws someone to a career like writing, and it seems obvious why they might not be the happiest bunch.

A study conducted at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop found that 80 percent of the residents displayed some form of depression. 

Dig a little deeper though, and some interesting findings reveal themselves—findings not just about the neuroscience of writerly depression, but about why Hemingway was so awful to Hadley, why Scott and Zelda drove each other mad, and why writers, by and large, are not only depressed people but also awful lovers.

A few months back, Andreas Fink at the University of Graz in Austria found a relationship between the ability to come up with an idea and the inability to suppress the precuneus while thinking. The precuneus is the area of the brain that shows the highest levels of activation during times of rest and has been linked to self-consciousness and memory retrieval. It is an indicator of how much one ruminates or ponders oneself and one’s experiences.

For most people, this area of the brain only lights up at restful times when one is not focusing on work or even daily tasks. For writers and creatives, however, it seems to be constantly activated. Fink’s hypothesis is that the most creative people are continually making associations between the external world and their internal experiences and memories. They cannot focus on one thing quite like the average person. Essentially, their stream of ideas is always running—the tap does not shut off—and, as a result, creative people show schizophrenic, borderline manic-depressive tendencies. Really, that’s no hyperbole. Fink found that this inability to suppress the precuneus is seen most dominantly in two types of people: creatives and psychosis patients.

What’s perhaps most interesting is that this flood of thoughts and introspection is apparently vital to creative success. In Touched with Fire, a touchstone book on the relationship between “madness and creativity,” Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins, reported that successful individuals were eight times more likely as “regular people” to suffer from a serious depressive illness.

If you think about it though, this “mad success” makes sense. Great writing requires original thinking and clever reorganization of varied experiences and thoughts. Whether it’s Adam Gopnik’s first piece for The New Yorker that related Italian Renaissance art with the Montréal Expos or Fitzgerald trailblazing the “Jazz Age” with his combination of Princeton poems and socioeconomic class sensibilities in This Side of Paradise, a writer’s job is to reshape a hodgepodge of old ideas into brand new ones. By letting in as much information as possible, the brains of writers and artists can trawl through their abundance of odd thoughts and turn them into original, cohesive products.

It’s not a surprise then that Tim Burton, Quentin Tarantino, and the most wildly creative writers of our generation have such bizarre ideas: they cannot stop thinking, and whether pleasant or macabre, their thoughts (that can turn into masterpieces like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Pulp Fiction) are constantly flowing through their minds.

Although this stream of introspection and association allows for creative ideas, the downside is that people with “ruminative tendencies” are significantly more likely to become depressed, according (PDF) to the late Yale psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema. Constant reflection takes a toll. Writing, editing, and revising also requires are near obsession with self-criticism, the leading quality for depressed patients.

In fact, a study conducted by Nancy Andreasen at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop found that 80 percent of the residents displayed some form of depression.

“One of the most important qualities [of depression] is persistence,” said Andreasen. “Successful writers are like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won’t go down. They’ll stick with it until it’s right.”

While Fitzgerald liked to boast of his raw talent that allowed him to come up with clever stories for the Post or The Smart Set in mere hours, biographers have noted that he spent months poring over drafts—a perfectionist making revision after revision. For better or for worse, creativity and focus are inextricably linked. As Andreasen said, “This type of thinking is often inseparable from the suffering. If you’re at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.”

This mishmash of unremitting rumination and self-criticism means that writers are always working. Even quotidian life is a writerly task. In an interview with The Paris Review, Joyce Carol Oates said, “[I] observe the qualities of people, overhearing snatches of conversations, noting people’s appearances, their clothes, and so forth. Walking and driving a car are part of my life as a writer, really.”

Now, for just a second, put aside the recent news that journalism/writing was ranked as the sixth most narcissistic job by Forbes. And don’t think about the fact that writing is not only a lonely job, but it is also one that can turn a pleasant walk or a drive into a form of work. Instead, focus on how writing is about being able to create and control a world.

For what is writing, but an amalgamation of our thoughts and experiences finished off with a wax and a shine?

This need for control often translates to real life too, and it comes at the expense of the feelings and wishes of nearly everyone around them. Writers are often such terrible lovers because they treat real people as characters, malleable and at their authorial will.

When Charles Dickens was 24 (and allegedly a virgin), he married Catherine Hogarth, then 21. Almost immediately after they married, he became infatuated with Mary, her younger sister (so much so that she would later become the basis for Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shoppe). Mary died shortly thereafter, which proved a devastating blow for Charles, and for the rest of their marriage Catherine futility tried to live up to her sister. After 22 years and 10 children with Catherine, Charles met Nelly Ternan, a young actress, and deciding that he was quite tired of his wife, tossed her aside in favor of this new mistress.

Like so many authors, from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Ezra Pound to V.S. Naipaul, Dickens wasn’t much of a good person. In fact, he was a rather terrible person and had history not bowed at the beauty of his fiction, he would have been remembered poorly.

Writers can be rather awful people, and their blend of depression, isolation, and desire to control not only their own characters but the “characters” of their real lives has been a relationship-killer for centuries.

(As for the other relationship-destroyer—writers’ infamous penchant for alcohol—Gopnik postulates, “Writing is work in which the balance necessary to a sane life of physical and symbolic work has been wrested right out of plumb, or proportion, and alcohol is (wrongly) believed to rebalance it.”)

Trying to balance vice, borderline mental illness, and a disregard for the real world in favor of fictitious ones is perhaps a noble but Sisyphusian act for many writers. Try as they might, the greatest creatives in history have too much neuroscience working against them, too many ideas fluttering around their minds.

It would be cliché to quote Jack Kerouac in saying, “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved”—and yet it is a platitude for a reason. The most fascinating people in history, the ones who make a difference, who create, might be depressed, perhaps miserable romantics, yet they have contributed more to society than many of them ever knew.

In fact, Fitzgerald died thinking he was a failure. He was in Hollywood doing “hack work” while his wife was in a Swiss sanitarium, and he often felt as though he were holding the ashes of his life in his hands. Only 44 years old but looking weathered and much older, he sat in his armchair listening to Beethoven, scribbling in the Princeton Alumni Weekly and munching on a Hershey Bar. It was a wintery morning in 1940, and as if propelled by a ghost, he leapt from his chair, grasped at the mantle piece, and collapsed on the floor. He died from a heart attack.

Zelda was too ill to make it to her husband’s funeral, but only a few months before, she had written to Scott with surprising lucidity, “I love you anyway—even if there isn’t any me or any love or even any life—I love you.”

She knew that they were mad, that their creativity and vice and entirely unique perspective on the world would be both their greatest high and their most agonizing low. To the letter, she added, “Nothing could have survived our life.”

by Edward Platt
Article from http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/

handling disappointment: 5 tricks to get you by

Article from http://www.positivelypresent.com/

 "If you don't like something, change it.
If you can't change it, change the way you think about it."

Mary Englebreit

This weekend a lot of people on the East Coast are facing disappointment. With a huge hurricane barreling up the coast, plans are being cancelled, places are being shut down, people are being evacuated, and events are being rescheduled. Up and down the coast, people are realizing that whatever weekend plans they made are going to have to be put aside or forgotten altogether.

I myself had some weekend plans that may or may not happen now that a tropical storm is heading my way and, like many of my fellow east coasters, I've felt more than one wave of disappointment over the past day or so. I probably won't be going to the museum I was looking forward to checking out. I probably won't be able to do all of the writing I had in mind (chances are, the power will go out and writing by hand just doesn't work out so well for me...). I probably won't be able to enjoy one of the few summer weekends we have left by spending time outdoors.

Most likely, this weekend will be a wash. A two-day parade of mini-disappointments. But, hey, that's life, right? Even if you're the luckiest girl or guy in the world, you're bound to encounter some disappointment in your life. Whether it be a rained-out weekend, a crush that didn't turn into a relationship, a job opportunity that didn't work out, or an accomplishment that didn't quite come to fruition, we've all suffered from setbacks. During times of disappointment, it can be pretty darn hard to see the silver lining. The negativity comes looming in and the positive thoughts are cast in shadows of negativity. Focusing on the positive seems like the hardest thing in the world to do when faced with a disappointment -- especially a big one -- but, hard as it might be, it's still possible to focus on the good things in your life even when you're battling a loss.

5 Tips for Handling Disappointment

1. Let yourself feel let down. It's okay to feel letdown. Even if it's a small thing (like me not going to the museum this weekend), allow yourself to experience whatever it is that you're feeling. Big or small, disappointments are not fun. You're allowed to be unhappy about them. But don't dwell on that unhappiness. Experience it, sit with it for a bit, and then move forward to #2. Allowing the disppointment to bring you down will do nothing positive for you, so don't let it hold you back for too long.

2. Get some perspective and see the big picture. No matter how hard it might seem, you have to take a step back and get some perspective. If you're facing a small disappointment, this is fairly easy. For example, I might be bummed that the power's likely to go out, but I can be grateful for all of the wonderful things I still have that don't involve electricity (love, health, etc.). When faced with a big disappointment, perspective can be tough to come by so don't be afraid to recruit loved ones to help you see the big picture. And, for added inspiration, make a list of everything going right in your life.

3. See if there's something you can change. As the quote above says, if you're unhappy with something, the first thing you should do is try to change it. Sometimes the initial sting of a disappointment makes us feel helpless, but on closer inspection we might find that there is, in fact, something we can do to prevent or lessen the disappointment. Give some thought to what's really at the heart of your disappointed feelings and see if you can seek satisfaction, inspiration, or motivation elsewhere. If you know there is nothing at all you can do, move on to #4.

4. Revise your thinking if change isn't an option. Once you've determined that there is nothing you can do to change the situation, you're best option is to change the way you see things. It's quite tempting to wallow in self-pity and despair when things are going as you'd hoped, but no good can come from doing that. If you want to handle your disappointment in a positive way, you have to change your thinking. Consider the disappointing situation carefully and find a way to re-frame it in your mind. Make a list of why this disappointment is actually a positive thing and you'll start to see the situation from a new perspective.

5. Believe in your ability to have hope. When facing disappointments, it's so easy to be beaten down, to believe that situations are hopeless, and to give up the belief that things will eventually work out. No matter what you do, don't let your let down bring you completely down. Keep reminding yourself to have hope and know that, despite the fresh pain of a new disappointment, you always have the ability to hope for good things coming your way in the future. Believe in yourself. Believe in hope.

No matter you're facing, no matter how hard it is, don't forget that you are not alone. Every day people face disappointments of all kinds -- from a tiny missed opportunity to a life-altering letdown -- and every day people overcome these difficulties and move forward with their lives. Initially it might seem difficult, but handling disappointments well is an essential part of living a positive life. If you want to live positively in the present moment, you must let go of life's letdowns and focus on the good things in your life. Easy? Not always. Essential? Absolutely. With any luck, the five tips above will help you to stay focused on the now and make the most of your life -- no matter what disappointments come your way.

How do you handle disappointments in your life?
What tips would you offer someone struggling with a major let down?

Update: I wrote this article before the storm arrived and, much to my surprise, it wasn't nearly as bad as the weatherpeople had predicted. We lost our power only briefly and on Sunday I was able to visit the Kandinsky art exhibit (crossing that off my list of 28 Things To Do Before I Turn 29!). Having this happen reminded me that we often anticipate disappointments before they have happened. Sometimes (actually, a lot of the time!) the things we worry about or anticipate being disappointed over never actually happen. I will definitely be keeping that in mind the next time I think a disappointment is coming my way!

Article from http://www.positivelypresent.com/

What Are Your Longtime Interests or Passions?

April 22, 2014, 5:05 am
From http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/

Do you root for a certain team? Is there a movie you constantly watch, a book you read over and over, a band you love more than all others?

When did it start?

In the Sunday Review piece “They Hook You When You’re Young,” Seth Stephens-Davidowitz argues exactly that:

The most important year in a boy’s baseball life is indeed age 8. If a team wins a World Series when a boy is 8, it increases the probability that he will support the team as an adult by about 8 percent. Remember, this is independent of how good the team was every other year of this guy’s life. Things start falling off pretty fast after the age of about 14. A championship when a man is 20 is only one-eighth as likely to create an adult fan as a championship when a boy is 8. Just winning games also matters, with a similar age pattern. But the data shows that there seems to be something really special about winning championships.

These results mean a successful team leaves a huge imprint long after all the players are retired. Consider a team like the St. Louis Cardinals. In a five-year period in the 1940s, led by Stan Musial, the Cardinals averaged more than 100 wins a season and won three championships. According to my model, roughly 20 percent of 80-year-old male Cardinals fans today would either support another team or not be a baseball fan if not for Musial and his teammates’ epic run. …

I am obsessed with the Mets and this obsession, I suspect, plays a large part in my persistent disappointment with adult life. The Mets of the Dwight Gooden-Darryl Strawberry era hooked me as a boy, dangling in front of me the diving plays of Keith Hernandez at first, the dramatic escapes of Jesse Orosco on the mound and the surprising power of Howard Johnson at third. I assumed that being a Mets fan meant a lifetime of pennant races and championships. But after I became an adult, the Mets delivered more losses than wins and no additional championships.

The data shows that if I had just been born 10 years earlier or 10 years later, I would be significantly less likely to be in this mess. I could be out celebrating Derek Jeter’s farewell tour, instead of lying by my radio, listening to another Mets loss, clutching my Rey Ordóñez-signed mitt.

You could say this is my fault and nothing to complain about. I am a grown man and can choose whatever baseball team I’d like. But data analysis makes it clear that fandom is highly influenced by events in our childhood. If something captures us in our formative years, it often has us hooked for life.

Students: Read the entire article, then tell us …

— Do you think you or people you know are “hooked for life” on a team or other interest like a musician, writer or actor? If so, why?

— Have family members helped you get into something you are passionate about? If so, what?

— Do you identify with Mr. Stephens-Davidowitz’s descriptions of his baseball fandom? Does he remind you of anyone you know who roots for the same or another team?

— How do people bond over shared interest in a team or other pursuit?

Students 13 and older are invited to comment below. Please use only your first name. For privacy policy reasons, we will not publish student comments that include a last name.

April 22, 2014, 5:05 am
From http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/