Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Genius with a Side of Pain....

by Clare O'Donohue

Does a great writer have to have a tortured soul?

There are a lot of unhappy people who work in artistic fields - musicians, poets, novelists, painters, probably clowns (but who can tell underneath all that creepiness). There is a tendency to link the two things - "greatness" and "sadness" surely go together, we say, as if one created the other.

But are they linked?

A while back, I watched a documentary about the qualities of really successful entrepreneurs. A person being interviewed said that study after study has been done on these people - the Bill Gates and Warren Buffetts of the world - and they all have several qualities in common - things like focus and persistence, adaptability, a love of what they did, etc...

The conclusions of all these studies was that if you want to be successful, you need to develop these traits. Seems logical.

But here's where it got interesting.

The guy in the documentary pointed out that no studies have been done on people who tried and failed. For all we know, he said, these defeated entrepreneurs were also focused and persistent. Maybe they were adaptable. Surely most of them loved what they did. Maybe they did everything that Gates did. And yet they failed.

We don't know if there are qualities that only successful people share, because no one has ever looked beyond them - never asked about the failures or about the people in the middle. The people conducting the studies, he said, choose their conclusion first, then went looking for evidence to back it up.

And that's what I think about "greatness" and "sadness". We put them together because they often are together (like success and focus) and we point to examples like Van Gogh's unfortunate ear issue, or the countless cases of  writers and artists dying of overdoses, suicides, or alcoholism, as proof of the link.

But surely there are lots of talented, successful writers who lived normal lives, without excessive angst. I'm sure they've had their share of sadness, but then don't we all - great writers or not. 

On the other hand, I have no idea if a higher rate of depression in creative types is due to the fact that depressed people are drawn to creative fields (where there is a higher tolerance for it) or whether being in a creative field makes one really depressed.

So, my best answer is "I don't know." I hope not, honestly. I like to think that greatness comes from honestly, objectivity, openness, and sensitivity - not from a tortured soul.

But then, I'm not a "great" writer. I'm a happy writer.

1 comment:

Susan C Shea said...

Good point about what might be the inadvertent control group - the rest of the entrepreneurs who didn't become Gates, Jobs, or Bezos. And, to add another variable, what's torment to one writer may be a momentary dislocation to another, forgotten in the excitement of an ice-cream cone!