Oh, the Mad, Magical Mind!

There is so much back story to the things I eventually want to post here that I freeze up and don’t get started. As in my regular creative life, hurdles appear large, and without adequate momentum I don’t get over them. The only thing to do, perhaps, is ignore the necessity of extensive back story and just write what needs to be written.*

So, the brief version: Over the years I’ve come to find that creative activity is essential to my existence. That knowledge, combined with severe self-judgment about the quality and quantity of creative output has led me to be keenly interested in understanding just what fuels creativity, what it means psychologically, spiritually, emotionally, practically. It’s possible that this is a fancy and somewhat academic way of shunning actual artistic endeavors (intellectual procrastination), but determining that is also part of the quest to understand and ideally, enhance this journey.

Given what has already been established in my experience – the connection between creative states and mental states, despair over inability to function creatively coupled with existential depression, an awareness that creative “inspiration”** certainly may be understood as characterized by firing neurons (and thus be biologically based), and that it might be useful to consider an inspiration source outside the self – I am aware of close ties creativity and mental illness have had throughout history.

I’m aware too, that mental illness is, in our society, often conflated with proclivities toward altered states of consciousness. Are they the same and mutually inclusive? By suggesting so (and thus pathologizing the whole caboodle), do we deny validity to the often physical, social, and cultural benefits of ASCs? A tightrope awaits the one who journeys this way.

Altered states of consciousness are praised in certain circles – shamans, psychonauts, visionaries and religious practicants (and hippies and hipsters, too) search them out. Heck, we all do (see Consumption of Alcohol, Children Spinning in Circles and other commonplace activities that stretch awareness and perception). Simultaneously we have difficulty dealing with extreme ends of the spectrum as relates to mental phenomena such that there are severe social stigmas associated with altered mentality.

On Friday, one of my favorite author-artists, Terri Windling, posted an invitation to join her in considering the link between hearing voices and hearing muses and thinking back through the path I’ve taken to explore the nature of personal and general creativity, I offer a hat-tip to a number of places I’ve come across other writers’ and artists’ take on this topic.

Douglas Eby’s Talent Development Resources has numerous articles in the category Mental Health exploring the connections and misconceptions between facing one’s demons (and using them creatively) and finding one’s daemon (as the Greeks conceived of one’s link to cosmic creativity through personification). These two articles may be of interest as well as the writings of those who challenge the stereotype of tortured, afflicted artist as the only legitimate embodiment of creativity.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk was synchronous with several sources of the idea that it might be useful to make friends with one’s muse (or non-linear, non-rational mind, however you want to call it) which I found when I needed them. And I am grateful for James Hillman’s words on the deep meaning of following one’s imagination-as-real: “Personifying not only aids discrimination, it also offers another avenue of loving, of imagining things in a personal form so that we can find access to them with our hearts.” Matt Cardin has considered the topic skillfully and in great depth on his focused blog Demon Muse and in his collection of writings on muse- or daemon-based-creativity, Course in Demonic Creativity. Don’t let the title scare you off, it’s well worth the read.

In his other blog, The Teeming Brain, (with enough links to provide interesting reading for months and insight on those links to keep you returning for more) Cardin questions a definition of reality that excludes the “unproveable” or that denies the reality of imagination and dream (see this post on the weird territory of alien abductions).

I think we’re in an era of uncertain self-identity, coming out of the stark materialism that resulted after having been burned by the Middle Ages. No pun intended, I think the witch burnings left serious scars, as did the Enlightenment – basically we’re all not right in the head, but at least we are trying to understand the implications of consciousness in a world of material manifestations. There is fuzzy space, room for interpretation and a lot of uncertainty about how this all gets tossed together and who we are in the process.

Regarding the reality/unreality dichotomy, another TEDtalk is worthwhile. USC professor Elyn Saks talks about her experience with schizophrenia, characterized by psychosis (“being out of touch with reality”) because of delusions (”fixed and false beliefs that are not responsive to evidence”) and hallucinations (”false sensory experiences”).

Given some flexibility with what experiences you jam into those categories, does the creative who enters imaginal realms (not reality)and converses with entities whose existence cannot be proven (characters of stories) differ qualitatively from the schizophrenic or the religious adherent caught up in ecstatic fervor and speaking in tongues or seeing angels?

What is the dividing line between those who mine their dreams, to whom the dreamed image begs to be brought to life and those who suffer a “nightmare while awake?” While in a psychotic episode Saks engaged in “loose association” in many ways reminiscent of my experience with poetry and free-associative writing, some of which has resulted in a sense of my being carried by something not myself, as a conduit of an energy seeking expression through language.

Saks goes on to say that she resisted medication for some time out of the assumption that “the less medicine, the less defective” she was. Interestingly, Sinead O’Conner found that with the help of medication to treat her manic-depressive (bipolar) disorder, her creativity and enjoyment of music and life returned, suggesting that artists needn’t suffer to reach their potential – terrible suffering doesn’t have to be a starting point, even if Rilke famously said, ”If my devils leave me, my angels will too.”

Being a relatively well-trained rationalist I sometimes feel defensively insecure about my clear-headed decisions to engage in magical thinking.

Yes, I wished on a lot of dandelions in hopes that we would move to Germany with Dan’s work. Did I really think the dandelions would make it happen? No. But it was a kind of Pascal’s wager and I seeded more lawns in California than I care to admit and quietly thanked the gorgeous blooms here in Germany this spring.

Yes, I search for ways to write from other consciousness perspectives besides the purely logical, evidence-seeking one.  I converse with my Muse-mind, walk in the woods hoping to find the place where I can understand animal-talk. I want to believe there is more than just a sack of bones and a brain with logical thoughts calling itself Wendy. I want deep psyche-spirit connection with a reality greater than I can rationally understand. I want to write from that connection – that’s what makes the phases of uncertainty and creative fumbling that looks a lot like listening to voices in my head worthwhile.

*I will ignore the debate over whether or not any blog post NEEDS to be written given the information sea that swamps everyone.
** is this an overused word in these times, when we understand it etymologically, but don’t actually believe that something is doing the breathing-in?

9 thoughts on “Oh, the Mad, Magical Mind!

  1. Beautifully eloquent, Wendy. I just just popped over from Terri’s blog because your comments there were so compelling. Today I’ve been reading (again) “The Brain that Changes Itself”, by Norman Doidge, and there is so much in there that suggests that what we believe to be ‘reality’ is far more influenced by the way our brains are wired (all of us, not just those who might be considered mentally unwell), than what is actually ‘out there’. Essentially we are all experiencing ‘altered states of consciousness’ in one way or another. Fascinating stuff.

    1. Christina, thank you! Sounds like a fascinating read! I think a lot of evidence points points to the fact that though we’re all so similar (something we as a species NEED to know so we can move beyond parochial insularism of all sorts), we are all also experiencing different realities. Wow, what a universe, to be capable of that!

      Likewise, something of benefit I see coming out of recent years’ attention on Autism SPECTRUM disorders is that we are all on a spectrum – on many of them, in fact (consider the the change in notions of people’s once-assumed-to-be-fixed gender or sexuality for example). Humans are complex systems embedded within other complex systems – it’s inevitable that there’s lots of juicy amazingness to explore!

      Speaking of which – you’ve got some great artwork showcased on your website – delightful, vibrant. Very nice!

    1. Thanks Mo Crow! I was browsing your blog too – really lovely drawings you’re working on. I recently moved from a place with an active crow culture. Where I am now has crows but they don’t appear as social as they were in California and your drawings reminded me of the humor and sense of story crows carry with them. Maybe I just haven’t learned their language here yet…

  2. I really enjoyed reading your contribution to this moveable feast! It’s amazing how deeply this topic strikes people. And it seems that the more we delve into it, the more mysterious it seems – which is perhaps frustrating to our rational minds, but oh so affirming to our magical ones.

    I’m just going to take a look at your “about” page now – you’d mentioned that you’ve moved to Germany – I was curious to see how long ago. (I’ve been here four years.) The whole topic of how the muse affects a person living in a foreign country is a fascinating one – which I’m so glad that Terri brought up, as it gave me the chance to really ponder that…

    1. Hallo Lynn! I’ve been in Germany since last September; still a newbie, still fumbling about with the language (and I mean fumbling). I’m glad you commented as I’d tried to click over to your blog from Terri’s but somehow couldn’t. From your link here, though, I made it! Nice! I really appreciate that blogs are such great media for sharing creative work.

      1. Also, blogspot doesn’t like my LiveID much – still trying to figure out why and until then, I don’t think my comments on your blog go through. I’ll keep working on it!

  3. How are you adjusting to life in Germany? After 4 years, I’m still fumbling with the language…

    I found that life in general not so different from that in Canada, at least not as different as I’d thought I would. There do seem to be different plateaus of adjustment to a new place – after the first year, I felt myself settling in finally. But now, after four years, I’m feeling a bit on the outside – which is in part due to my tenuous grip on the language. I really must make an effort and study more, or take another course. My husband is fluent and I work alone (painting), so I haven’t *had* to make more of an effort to go beyond my basic German. But that’s certainly on my “to do” list for the next few months – I need to get beyond German small-talk.

    No, your comment didn’t show up on my blog. I’m often mystified by blog and live journal commenting, sometimes they work, sometimes not. Don’t know why the link on my name from Terri’s blog isn’t working, one of those internet mysteries.

    I’ve signed up for notification of your new posts by email. Look forward to reading more!

    1. Well, I can’t say for sure. 🙂

      In some ways I just have my regular life, mostly at home, and it’s hard to tell I’m in Germany. After experiences living in Asia, I don’t feel obviously foreign though I can’t speak much of the language. It’s pretty much ‘comfortable,’ but that’s probably a result of my being pretty isolated and having access to helpful people: My very nice neighbors (who have become friends) all speak English and the folks I know through my husband’s work all have English as their working language too. (Technically, as spouse of someone with a work-permit, I can’t work here.) I could conceivably exist here without learning German, but that’s not what I want to do. I don’t want to waste the opportunity to learn a new language (and a new way of perceiving and being that goes along with it). I have to be honest, though, my main motivation for learning German as of right now is not so that I can communicate better with shop clerks but so that I can read Rilke in the original. It’s a kind of self-perpetuating thing – I won’t have any non-English relationships until I speak German and until then, I don’t know what I’m missing. 🙂

      You’d think with all this ‘time’ on my hands, I’d be really prolifically busy. Instead, I just find myself being busy without much to show for it. Our house is large (it was a tight market and we didn’t really need the space but it was available in the area we needed), the garden needs attention, and there’s plenty to do with my kids transition to life here too. Little by little I’m trying to work into a schedule to give myself time to write – but my mind is a sneaky thing and thinks of equally clever ways to deceive itself and skip out.

      Maybe my main reason for starting a blog and having it relevant to my writing life is so that I can require accountability of myself. A kind of “look! everybody’s watching, don’t you think you’d better DO something?” So for that, I appreciate so much that you’ve subscribed!

      Sometimes I wish I could figure out a way to do something collaborative or at least with a small community in the way that Terri’s circle does. Sounds like Dartmoor is a great, fertile place to be.

      But then again, maybe so is the internet!


      (ps. when I stop by your blog, I’ll log in with my blogger id – also “Wendy” – which has a link to this blog so you’ll know it’s me 🙂

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