Blood-Red and Black/More on Creativity

Still wondering about creativity, still immersing myself in some of the vast quantities of material out there, and am very grateful for all of the amazing work that has been and is being done to explore the connections between creativity and “madness.”  But to steal (and probably badly paraphrase) a line from “Beowulf”: “tis not very far from here and ’tis not a pleasant place.” 

Poet David Whyte has said that stifling your creativity is not a passive act; he likens it to letting the smoke build up in a chimney–the greasy, black smoke that slowly backs up into your whole house, and if you did light a match to it, it would burn your house down.  This is suffocating and paradoxical imagery–you need to allow creativity to move as a force, but some forms of its movement are life-threatening.

Poet Gwyneth Lewis expands on this in the book I mentioned in my last post: Sunbathing in the Rain: A Cheerful Book on Depression: “The Furies are the creative processes’ revenge if you refuse to embody them in your life.  This refusal is more than creative sabotage, it’s impiety” (Lewis, 51).

I love this book, and want to share more of her thoughts here:

“Poetry has acquired a fluffy image, which is totally at odds with its real nature.  It’s not pastel colors, but blood-red and black.  If you don’t obey it as a force in your life, it will tear you to pieces.

 This is because it’s a form of energy, which links the electricity of your truth to the world around you.  Metre and rhyme help to earth that energy and to find a safe way of embodying it in words.  The raw materials of poetry link the trivia in your life to your deepest subconscious, so abusing the process is likely to cause you big psychological problems.  If you don’t do what your poetry wants you to do, it will be out to get you.  Unwritten poems are a force to be feared” (Lewis, 50).

Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament is an excellently researched and personally informed book.  The woman is extraordinary for her contributions to this field of study.  Here’s some of what she says:

“There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that, compared to ‘normal’ individuals, artists, writers, and creative people in general, are both psychologically ‘sicker’—that is, they score higher on a wide variety of measures of psychopathology—and psychologically healthier (for example, they show quite elevated scores on measures of self-confidence and ego strength” (Kay Redfield Jamison, Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, 97). 

“The elemental human desire to add meaning and permanence to life—to avoid the fate rendered by Dante as ‘no more memorial/Than foam in water or smoke upon the wind’—takes on additional depth and urgency for those who have intense moods and brooding dispositions.  The act of creating becomes…essential in its own right” (Jamison, 124).  

“To the extent that an artist survives, describes, and then transforms psychological pain into an experience with more universal meaning, his or her own journey becomes one that others can, thus better protected, take” (Jamison, 120-1).

What this last quote suggests is what I’m tracking–that the creative process with all of its risks and terrors–is ultimately a healing and connective act, one that reaches beyond the limits of individual pain and offers something essential to the world.  And as anyone familiar with woundedness and suffering (and who is not?) knows, healing is not fluffy or pastel; like poetry, it is blood-red and black.  It involves pain, growth, and scar tissue, and is a force that is vitally, heartbeatingly alive.

Stay tuned for more, or even better, come to my creativity workshop on January 30th: see (, “News” page for more info.

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