October 22, 2006

Schizophrenia and Creativity

Is there a connection between schizophrenia and creativity? Between madness and art? Between my illness and my poetry? The jury is out on the first two, though there is certainly a great deal of anecdotal evidence suggesting a link and it may be that one will be found. But creativity is such a huge arena that it is safe to say that it is not wholly the province of the mad in any event, so that so to say there is a link may be little more than to say being human is also linked to madness. In short, I am wary of the value of making such claims, of what good can come of them. Surely there is as much creativity linked to health as to illness after all!

But on a personal level, I can discuss the third question: Is there a connection between my schizophrenia and my poetry, or better, how does my illness influence my poems, if it does? I started writing poetry in 1984 and by 1985 was writing hundreds of poems a year. While I stopped obsessively dating everything after around 1987 I know that I wrote as often as I could, sometimes daily, for many years, though with long lacunae for hospitalizations. I had high points and low, times when I couldn't stop writing and times when I couldn't write at all. I wrote poetry almost exclusively until 1992, when I started a novel, which I wrote 400 pp of in 3 weeks. Then I returned to poetry, and went on writing. I wrote some book reviews, and earned some money for them to boot, but kept up with the poems. And I started my memoir, a work that would take me some 12 years. But always there was the poetry, though in the later 90s and early 2000s my output slowed to a trickle compared to what it had been at its peak, though the quality seemed to be high, according to my readers.

But what was striking -- what probably strikes all poets when they look back over the decades of their development as writers -- was the change in my style as a poet. It wasn't that I simply got better and better, more proficient as a wordsmith, no, not that at all. In fact, I'm not convinced that I did get better. I didn't get worse. I changed, I changed completely. It is as if one can trace the progression of my illness and with it the medications and changes in meds throughout the years as they transformed my writing. The poems from 1985 are not a beginner's poems at all; they are, to my ear now, quite sophisticated, lovely and fresh, and in fact I think they are better, more creative and free than anything I've written since. I'm envious of that ability, having lost it completely to the past. Take this first part of a 3-part poem for a good example of what I was writing:


The Poet

The year’s done in, a dog, tail between its legs,
And I am Circe, immobilized by moly.

My spell casts no magic, my light no glow.
I am all shadows, wormy as an Eskimo’s blubber.

It is cold here, the hole has closed up, no air,
Shutting its sleep-lids tight as a jar.

Bleak light seeps to me through a broken mirror
Of my own nothingness and sheer bad luck.

Bring an end to it then! Call in the purple
Architects, the landscape artists, the passionate poets.

They will build you a red castle of gingerbread
and curlicues, yews and bold, bold words, the old romance.

You don’t need this maggoty old shawl of tears,
Hopelessness empty as a cup. Wake up!

It’s certain as January you’ll find your own voice.
And look here, the dog bleats for new bones.

"Maggoty old shawl of tears"? A dog that "bleats for new bones"? Wow! I'm sorry but it takes a new eye, an untired ear to write words like that; it takes a certain looseness and willingness to accept weird connections and linkages that others might reject as too outlandish to write a poem like that...and I think it is a marvelous poem, frankly. (I say this, not quite believing I wrote it.) You say, a dog doesn't bleat? I say only unimaginative people can't hear dogs bleating or think that only sheep can bleat...But the looseness I'm talking about is also a symptom of schizophrenia, a familiarity with a confusion of senses and sensory experiences; a verbalizing of that confusion. Everything sounds like it makes on the edge of making sense, but does it? Does it quite? I know I thought so when I wrote the poem, but I'm not sure I can decipher it now. Can you? In any event, I still think the poetry of the poem is fantastic and will grant it the right to be "evocative" without making perfect logical sense.

Another "phase" or medication regimen had me writing poems that were more logical, in that they did make "sense" but were for all that just as hard to understand, because of their language. Take this one:


Off the corridor plumed with oxygen
the blue incandescent symmetry of your tiger
burns blue behind every door,
consumes and is consumed
in pyrotechnics cold as starlight.
Hope, guttering like spent Christmas,
in votive lights it candles visible death:
the mirror measures each breath,
telegraphing the code.

Your Morse is all dots now, brief impossibilities
that punctuate the smallness of what’s left:
a perfect absolution, the crime
wounding your Biblical angel
on the banks of the river, flames,
those last lives
devouring the bridge to any other shore,
the last sufficient silos of breath
begging the grail of your life...

Here, then, is that chalice, beautiful and terrifying
that overflows and is refilled endlessly.
Ambivalent, you drain it in isolation
the stupefying liquid fire,
its beatitude scarring you, marking you
even as the Logos descends on bitter wings
and death wakens to its task:
your perfection, cold and final as snow.

I think the medication was not working too well here, because as I read it, I know the code, so I understand some of the references and what I was talking about, but here I am not communicating it to anyone else...Unless I don't care to. Unless it doesn't matter. Once again, the style may be the point, not communication but language as beauty, as art. My medication had not yet made communication of an idea as important to me then as it is now, clearly. But once again, the style depended on the medication, Prolixin, this time probably, instead of Thorazine/Mellaril or nothing.

My illness, apart from the medication issue, probably took more from me than it gave. It may have given me poetry, yes, for which I am eternally grateful, but would I have traded my entire life, and taken all the suffering I've been through in order to have poetry, and still have schizophrenia to boot? If I had been given the choice at the outset? I doubt it. Now, of course, now I can say having the ability to write poetry is wonderful, it is a blessing, but it's an "extra" that most people with this horrible illness do not get to have at all, so I am LUCKY to have it; it is not something that we ALL get just because we are somehow blessed with this illness! That's the problem with finding some sort of "link" to art: if people see there is something positive to schizophrenia, they will stop trying to find a cure and will want to teach people to accept and live with it, and they will not understand the horrendous suffering we go through that NO ONE should have to go through, not even for the sake of art, and certainly not for the sake of some tenuous "link" to art.

So while my illness definitely affects me and my poetry, as an individual who writes for her life, I don't know that schizophrenia has anything intimately to do with creativity in general that is worthwhile saying or studying. I think the two are best left apart and studied separately. It seems to me to serve no purpose to link them, or to find evidence in great artists that they had SZ and therefore that SZ has a reputable history etc. SZ is an illness and those with SZ are unfortunate victims...If they create great art or do great things, it is in spite of this illness, not because of it, and the schizophrenia they have or had should NOT be glorified. It serves no purpose and does no one any good deed to glamorize a psychiatric disease that in the end has mostly ruined untold countless lives and added little of value to any.

Posted by pamwagg at October 22, 2006 01:01 AM


Hi Pam, I'm not sure if there is a link bet sz and creativity. Matt seems to have lost a bit of his. He used to write beautiful poetry and create wonderful art, but now it seems like such a struggle and the end result is not as good as it used to be. still, i give him tons of credit for still trying!!! he is going to take a beginning watercolor painting class in nov. He has unbelievable drive!!! bravo, matt!! I agree with you Yaya, creativity is very important!
Pam, your presentation in Huntington was unbelievable. Lynnie's speech was great too!!! it was so moving to see the two of you together. My mom and sister were there also. mom's comment: "I love Pam's voice!" I agree, it's quite beautiful and it is especially so when you read your poetry. what a perfect match... a soothing voice reading magical poetry!! great job! love, sue

Posted by: sue m at October 22, 2006 07:28 PM

Dear Pam,

In my desire to help may daughter Cassie make a life for herself, I’ve encouraged her to express herself creatively. I can’t say if she’s an artist, but encouraging her creativity is important to me. In creating---- there is no right or wrong. What can seem awkward today may develop into something beautiful and meaningful tomorrow. Cassie’s life will not be life of her two older sisters. According to societies standard, her two sisters lives are considered productive and normal. Cassie’s life has been difficult and taking in account her very young life ---- filled with suffering. Maybe I’m selfish to want her suffering to mean something. Out of her suffering there is something that can be released through the creation of her artistic expression.

The future is unknown and unpredictable, but shouldn’t suffering account for something? As a mother I pray it does.


Posted by: Yaya at October 22, 2006 02:28 PM

I agree with you -- sz may inform the poetry at times, but all too often it makes coherent writing virtually impossible.
-ky perraun

Posted by: ky perraun at October 22, 2006 01:18 PM

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