After about thirteen or so years engaged in numerous creative and fine arts pursuits, I’ve decided that creative work and creativity can actually become pathological. That is, contrary to the prevailing logic, that phenomena known as art addiction is very real. So is turning artistic productivity into a zealous impulse that resembles slavery and grinding more than any spiritually liberating or at least expressive practice. When art becomes these things, you’re seeing pathological creativity in practice.
There’s a fine line between passion and obsession, and when it gets crossed, you veer towards compulsive behavior- towards that phenomena known as art addiction. I’ve experienced this first-hand in almost every medium I’ve successfully worked in- but in photography and particularly in writing. You start with that initial difficulty and joy, and grow skillful, and then- well, you can’t stop yourself from working. Once that flow is reached, it becomes addictive, and whatever was mystical about making art goes straight out the window, to be replaced with a grind. The once liberating creative work becomes, instead of a source of freedom and dignity, tedium and toil- and at that, endless labor that the artist has enslaved himself to. Once you’re obsessed, you literally cannot stop yourself; that spiritual flow becomes a materialistic addiction to the neurotransmitter release found in flow, which requires greater and greater effort to achieve. The artist’s high, once liberating, becomes farther and farther away, harder and harder to achieve. The end result is first a slow hatred of the work, and then ultimately burnout.
Creative burnout’s been a huge problem for me, for several reasons, but chief among them is simply that I rely on creative work to stay modestly, or at least tolerably, sane enough to (barely) function in the real world. I am one of those artists who happens to be mentally ill (severely so), who has found through trial and error that he’s somewhat less mentally unhealthy when doing creative work in a healthy fashion. Balance is key in such matters, and it’s easy to lose it and just drift into working yourself to death, which is detrimental to health and sanity- which defeats that individual purpose in art making. Burnout literally means you can’t work anymore, or you can only work in sporadic and hopelessly inefficient bouts and fits after overworking yourself. Eventually not only does nothing get done, but nothing can be done.
Thanks to this, burnout has also stopped me from completing countless works of fiction, as well as from getting my poetry together and edited and into published books. It’s also made me too tired to do the more tedious side of the work- of say, organizing an ever-growing photo archive well enough to get it all online or into a storefront somewhere perhaps. In terms of getting my art out into the world, it’s stopped me cold in my tracks countless times. Things don’t get finished, and the burnout extends beyond the realm of creative work into everything from basic hygiene and self-care to handling chores and tasks that need to be done to maintain oneself. But burnout- creative work as joy, made into being enthralled to creative work until the point of collapse- is just one form of pathological creativity.
Apart from burnout, there’s another insidious form of pathological creativity. Namely, that of the obsession with productivity. I can, and have, for instance, written 1000-2000 words of new fiction in a given day, on three or more separate projects at times. I’ve, to my horror, read about wildly successful writers with families who do several times that on a daily basis. For me, and most I imagine, more realistically I’ve worked on one project at 1000-2000 words a day, every day, and sustained that rate for many months. In an ideal world I’d probably stop at 1000 words a day 3 days a week, because that seems a lot saner and more sustainable in the long run…but even that is creativity forced into a timetable and quantifiable amount of labor done. It’s art translated into labor, at your standard corporate culturally determined rates. This can certainly be healthy- but at other times, more often than not, it’s totally pathological. I’m not writing enough; I didn’t do enough today, I’ve only done, say, 500 words. I didn’t shoot photos for four hours today and edit for another three; hell, all I’ve done is work on old photos in Photoshop for an hour today- haven’t even touched the camera. Never mind the pile of dishes, the car in need of maintenance, the phone calls that need to be made, the shower that got skipped…a good sign that creativity has become pathological, I think, is that things that need to be done, aren’t.
Money is something that spawned the whole toxic culture of productivity as a virtue (indeed the only virtue for some of us), and a final way that I think creativity can become pathological is when we arbitrarily attach the value of creativity to the income it generates. Frankly, for some of us (like myself), income generated from art making is non-existent or largely so. Talent does not translate to fame or wealth, especially in the art game; there’s such a thing as not being recognized until after you’ve died, for instance, and even that’s not certain when you’re making art. When I attach money to my art- which has never showed up, when I make money the reason for doing art, or something I deserve for all my effort and work, I have to admit that the first thing I do is get frustrated and stop. Additionally there’s the whole wretched process of diluting your work and message in the name of garnering dollar bills from the masses or some sort of patron or something; while I haven’t experienced this first hand, being delightfully unappreciated by the market, I’ve seen evidence of it in others, and felt the temptation to make commercial works to sustain myself. While I don’t think it’s wrong to do so, I do think it can be wrong to do so, and I don’t get a lot of inspiration when I attempt such cynical activities. I imagine if I pulled such off successfully I wouldn’t have time for anything but more greed-inspired works that would almost certainly be watered down, and so I’ve found attaching dollar bills vacuumed out of foreign wallets into mine is another toxic manifestation of creative work.
Pathological creativity, and art addiction, go hand in hand, and are both deadly real. Productivity and cynical wealth-making can be obsessions that fuel the two. The sane strive to avoid all the above in creative work I think; all things in moderation is probably the watchword for such endeavors. But so is simply the process of taking stock and analyzing your creative habits and practices. How do they make you feel? How much time do you spend with them? Are they altogether healthy, or worthwhile? If not, it’s probably time to address them for what they are, rather than trudging onwards to a merciless oblivion.
Creativity can be extremely rewarding, but that all stops the second it becomes pathological. It’s wise to recognize the possibility and stop it from happening before it takes place.