One man’s story about his passion for writing, his fear of medicating his mood, and keeping his creativity
I tiptoed into the packed, dimly lit performance studio for my first ever spoken word poetry event. My eyes adjusted quickly and my ears opened to a deep, booming voice: “When you and I tango, winter smiles.” Around the room, the audience swayed.
The warm studio welcomed me in from the Boston cold. That winter evening of 1999, I fell in love with poetry, both on the page and performed aloud.
I was a freshman at Harvard University at the time. I wrote poems daily over the next year and a half. In spring of my sophomore year, though, I wrote more and slept less than I ever had. My mind sharpened and my words flowed. I was convinced that if I stopped writing, I would no longer be the “chosen prophet.”
My writing binge spiraled into a two-week manic episode. When I showed my roommate my “scriptures,” he wisely called my parents. They quickly placed me in a psychiatric hospital, where I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed medications I was told I would be taking for a long time.
I returned to Harvard with my illness under control, but a part of me felt frustrated. My desire to write stayed strong. I joined a campus poetry club and pursued my craft in a class and, later, in community workshops. I accepted that staying well was better than the alternative. Yet on some deep level, I yearned to experience mania’s creative rush again.
I have bipolar disorder and I am a creative person. For a long time, I felt I had to choose between managing my illness and unleashing my creativity. The electric currents surging through my brain during my manic writing binge had made me feel more inspired, more productive.
Now I embrace the following belief: I believe we can be creative independent of mania. It may be that mania fuels our creativity, but I believe it is not necessarily mania that allows creativity.
I (and anyone with bipolar) can have both a balanced life and artistic inspiration.
I adapted this idea from an online lecture I watched last year. In “Your Elusive Creative Genius,” Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) argues that we need to return to a view of creativity that is closer to the ancient conception of muses. In this view, creativity is a force originating outside of us, not emanating from within.
That was an Aha! moment for me. Her lecture shifted my perspective and put me at ease. In the back of my mind, even after years of successfully writing poetry, after recording a full album of spoken-word pieces and compiling enough written poems for a book, I still carried the thought that mania was a precondition for my best work. Now I saw that the central condition for creativity was becoming the best conduit for it.
If I am hungry, I reasoned, my mind is focused on eating; if I am sleepy, my mind is focused on sleep. Neither condition is right for my muse to flow freely.
The two ideas sat well with me: I am not the center of creativity, and I create best when I am in my best state. Therefore I do not have to choose between being balanced and being creative. Instead, I need to be balanced to prepare the ground for creativity.
Many of us who have bipolar disorder use that feeling of creative genius as a measuring stick. Sometimes we teeter on the precarious edge of temptation, ignoring the dangers of mania in our quest to unbridle our imaginative powers.
Although it seems like a mere mental exercise, I believe how we think about ourselves and our illness is what allows us to live successful lives. Sometimes a minor shift in perspective, like opening up to an external muse rather than craving mania, brings new comfort and light.
Printed as “On My Mind: Mania vs. The Muse”, Summer 2014
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