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Old 05-13-2018, 11:22 AM
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Default Random long-form writings

I have a habit of just throwing out three or four thousand-word replies at various sites off the cuff. I’m starting this thread to keep them all in one place (with the exception of the ones for Marathon Chronicles, which I just added to my signature; those already are more or less in one place), as I suspect I’ll want to work elements of many of them into a longer writing I’ve been working on. I’m not really doing this with the expectation of generating any sort of discussion, and I can’t promise I’ll reply if it does. But people have been complaining that there’s too little interesting content here lately, so hopefully this’ll help liven things up a bit. I’ll provide links to the pieces within their original discussions, as there may be bits of context that would otherwise escape explanation. Over the next few days I’ll probably also start gathering the other long-form replies I remember and am still able to find.

Anyway, here’s something I wrote about seven hours ago.

I mentioned I’d probably have more to say later. I’m not sure I’m really in the best frame of mind to say it right now, though. We’ll see how this works out.

I’d never actually heard of Frightened Rabbit before this piece got posted, so I can’t speak of Hutchinson’s death from the frame of mind of a fan of his work specifically. I can speak from the framework of a person who has absorbed quite a lot of creative works, many of them quite emotionally bleak, and who has created a not insubstantial number themselves.

I’ve contended for a long time that the creative process generally requires both a narcissistic and an altruistic streak. (I’m speaking colloquially here; I’m not using “narcissism” clinically. I feel it necessary to clarify this because for most of the rest of this piece, when I use any other psychological term, I will in fact be using the clinical definition.) Narcissism, because showing a creative work to an audience is essentially saying, “look at me.” Altruism, because the creator’s hope in most cases is that the audience will enjoy or derive meaning from the work. A creator generally aims to enrich the world by creating a work of value or meaning. There are exceptions – people that go into creative fields purely because they want money and without any particular artistic aim, for example, or people who are purely hoping to propagandise for some hateful cause. But those exceptions aside, most creators have strains of narcissism and altruism.

These impulses are not easily balanced. And I can’t speak for every creator, but on the whole, when inspiration strikes, I tend to feel almost compelled to follow my muse. In some media, there’s an element of time; if you don’t write down a musical or literary idea, you will tend to forget it. But even for media where ideas generally aren’t time-sensitive – game development, for example – I tend not to feel satisfied until I get something working the way I want it to. It’s as though there’s a piece of me that’s simply missing, and making my idea work restores the missing piece.

I’ve described this almost as a compulsion, and I am in fact a sufferer of psychological compulsions. I was diagnosed with what was literally described to me as “components of obsessive-compulsive disorder” around half my life ago. I should be clear that this is not full-blown OCD, and I don’t actually completely understand what it means, but I don’t feel compelled to count ceiling tiles or check to make sure my door is locked twenty times or repeatedly wash my hands. I do get smaller manifestations, though. When I was a child, I studiously avoided stepping in cracks in the sidewalk even if it required walking oddly. Tears in paper drive me insane (and I’m not using that entirely figuratively) – this has actually caused me occasional difficulty at work. I suspect that, when I feel compelled to work on creative works, it is a manifestation of the same psychology.

I agree completely with the Le Guin quote I posted above. There is some sort of romantic view of suffering as contributing to the artistic process. I don’t find this to be the case at all; it’s quite the opposite. In some of my past comments I’ve described a long nonfiction work inspired in part by a friend’s Academy Award-winning film. I wrote the bulk of this (it currently sits at some 70,000 words; I once described it as an essay but I think it’s already long enough to qualify as a book) in a stretch from mid-March to late April 2017. It’s not remotely coincidental that I was uncharacteristically happy while I was working on the book. In fact, the moment I started suffering serious psychological disorders again, I lost my capacity to work on it, which is a large part of the reason I haven’t yet “finished” it; in fact, for months it became almost impossible for me to write more than about five paragraphs at once.

(I idiosyncratically don’t believe that creative works are ever properly “finished”; creators just decide that sinking additional time into the works is a waste of time compared to beginning new ones, but for lack of a better term, I’ll use the commonly used one with scare quotes. I could go into this in much greater depth, but it’s not relevant here.)

Eventually, I regained my ability to write large amounts of text at once. On enough occasions over the past several months that I’ve lost count, I’ve started typing and, without really noticing, reached some 2,000 or 3,000 words within an hour or two. This has coincided almost perfectly with my psychological recovery. I’m not as well off now as I was when I wrote the bulk of my book, but I don’t feel constantly miserable.

I’m not going to say suffering is entirely valueless. I’ve also gone into detail before about how I feel that facing meaningful consequences for failure is a necessary factor in developing a sense of empathy for others, and that it is also probably the most valuable teacher a person can have. I’ve heard “experience is the best teacher” stated before, but “failure is the best teacher” is probably a better way of stating it.

But, once again, this goes back to what Le Guin states above: “If it hurts, repeat it.” There’s a strain of society that actually believes this, and it’s colloquially insane (“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results,” as the possibly apocryphal Einstein quote* goes). Yet a not insubstantial segment of society actually seems to think this is beneficial.

The thing is that in certain narrowly defined contexts this may be somewhat true, and it may be why artists have a difficult problem with psychological disorders. In order to truly master a creative discipline, you have to practise at it. A lot. And, by some definitions of the term, you’re technically doing the same thing over and over, and eventually you will get a different result – you’ll progress from an unsatisfying result to one you’re at least marginally satisfied with.

But by a more accurate definition, you’re not doing the same thing over and over; you’re actually doing a similar thing more effectively. The distinction is subtle, but it’s crucial. If every attempt to play “Flight of the Bumblebee” ended exactly the same as one’s first attempt to play it, no one would ever learn it. And this goes back, once again, to why I feel failure is a crucial teacher. In order to learn to perform a difficult musical work (and to do numerous other tasks in life), you have to fail in many different ways in order to learn how to stop failing.

But our society’s view of creativity is deeply destructive. We (I’m speaking collectively about American society; I think the viewpoint I’m describing is madness) romanticise the tortured artist, to some extent, but we’re extremely hostile to failure. The entire fact that “loser” is colloquially used as an insult is indicative of what I would consider a pathology in American society.

And it’s a pathology that has profoundly affected me. I’ve probably written before about how, when I’ve suffered depression, I’ve never suffered any form of denial about it; I just accepted it for what it was as soon as I realised it was affecting me. But when I was diagnosed with an autism-spectrum disorder, it took me years to accept that I even had the disorder, and decades to come to terms with what it meant as an identity issue. (And it is an identity issue; this is a matter I will address in great detail in my book whenever I finally feel satisfied enough with it to release it.)

While a number of possible explanations suggest themselves for this, the only one I read as plausible has to do with cultural attitudes I’d internalised to these disorders through my exposure to largely American popular culture. There was something romantic about suffering. There was nothing romantic about autism; it was the province of freaks and weirdos, and I had no visible role models in society proving it was possible to live a functional life with the disorder. (There are a few famous, successful people with the disorder, but I either didn’t know who they were – e.g., Temple Grandin – or didn’t know they had it – e.g., Dan Aykroyd.) So my brain outright rejected the idea that I could suffer the disorder.

As I’ve said, I lost some fifteen years of my life to this madness. And I’m not using this term colloquially; I was literally mentally ill. Depression is a mental illness in the most literal definition of the term; it’s a case of the brain being too ill to perceive reality accurately. I failed out of my first college and lost scholarships totaling some tens of thousands of dollars, despite a perfect SAT score, excellent AP scores, and high enough grades to have made several honour societies. I did fantastically in high school; I was not remotely prepared for college. I spent most of the years 2001-2015 depressed, with the exception of a largely happy relationship that lasted for most of 2003-2005, and it was not romantic or rewarding or a source of personal growth. Depression actively worked against all of those things.

I didn’t entirely waste those years – I would not be a tenth the writer I am without them, for example, because I learned how to express myself precisely enough that neurotypicals won’t wildly misread my intended meaning – but I probably squandered about ninety percent of the opportunities that came to me during that time, because for an awful lot of them, I was doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. With rare exceptions (my relationship being the main one, and few others past its dissolution in early 2006), I did little productive over that entire time period that didn’t involve writing. I have little doubt that, if I’d had a healthier mental attitude for the past 17 years, I would by now be working as a programmer, as an IT security consultant, as a writer in Hollywood, at a game development studio, or at any of a number of other fulfilling occupations. My current occupation isn’t unfulfilling, to be clear, but it’s also about to disappear.

My mental illness contributed to my remaining in a job I hated for three and a half years longer than I should have stayed there. It led to my pushing far too many people I cared about away from me. It led to me entirely neglecting real-world friendships for over a decade. None of these things made me more capable in creative fields; in fact, I suspect they actively worked against my creative expression, because I have fewer experiences with in-person interaction than most people my age would have, and with writing in particular, knowledge of human nature is crucial to writing effectively. I could go on.

I would like to address something others have said about “enjoying” emotionally dark creative works. I think this is a point where our language fails us. There are numerous experiences we describe as “enjoyment” that are wildly different subjective experiences. Eating good food, being in love, listening to good music, experiencing an orgasm, giving another person an orgasm, engaging in an act of charity, seeing a respected high school classmate win the 89th Academy Award for Best Picture, and experiencing an emotional catharsis are, in some regards, all acts that most if not all well-adjusted human beings will derive enjoyment from. However, they are not at all the same; while some of them are similar, many of them are vastly different. But the same umbrella term, “enjoyment”, in some regards applies to all of them.

And even under the same umbrella, there are very different types of enjoyment one can derive from seemingly similar acts. The enjoyment I receive from listening to a black metal album is very different from the enjoyment I receive from listening to a progressive rock album, which is one reason I listen to both genres. The enjoyment I derive from the song “Dťlivrance” by Alcest is very different from the enjoyment I derive from the song “Sur l’ocťan couleur de fer” by the same artist, despite their superficial musical similarities. (Note: despite Alcest’s overall reputation as a metal artist, neither of these songs are remotely heavy; in fact, most people could easily sleep to either of them.) The latter is a profoundly sad song, whereas the former – well, its name is a cognate to English and it feels like its name.



But we describe all of these as “enjoyment” because our language is, it seems to me, very limited when it comes to emotional expression. The fact that we borrowed the emotion Schadenfreude from German seems fairly indicative here – we’re talking about the Germans here. But the English are noted for their stiff-upper-lip approach, and there’s a rather macho strain in American culture that disdains emotions as something not manly. As a result, we have dozens of terms for a given emotion that largely overlap, perhaps differing in intensity. Rage, anger, fury, wrath, ire, indignation, vexation, resentment, the list goes on. Some of them are stronger than others, but they all mean different degrees of the same thing. Yet indignation at a perceived wrong to oneself is a different thing entirely than indignation at a perceived wrong to a loved one, which in turn is a different thing entirely than indignation at a perceived wrong to others one has no personal connection to, but perceives as defenceless. And so on. We can arrive at some of these distinctions with modifiers, but the fact that we have to place the modifiers in speaks to me of a deficiency in our language as it relates to our thinking – because, as linguists have often observed for years, language often shapes thought in surprising ways.

So it is with enjoyment. The term can mean a number of different things, not always closely related. There would ordinarily be something pathological about saying that you derive happiness from the fact that another human being is suffering. It’s understandable in the cases of particularly vile humans like the president*, but on the whole it’s not the sort of thing a well-adjusted human being does. But there is something understandable about experiencing a creative work that expresses severely negative emotions – even depression or despair – and deriving strength from it.

I think part of it is the simple “you are not alone” factor. The fact that other human beings have experienced the same thing you have is… well, comforting. And when you express it that way, it sounds rather callous. But humans are social animals. We need to feel like we belong, and a profound emotional disturbance can shake that feeling from us. Experiencing a work like Blood on the Tracks or Shoot Out the Lights or The Downward Spiral or Closer or Pink Moon can help us realise that, no, other people have been down this road before as well, even if not all of them made it out. So the term “enjoyment” might get applied to these albums, because our language lacks a more appropriate noun to describe our emotional reaction to them.

I’ve spent a long time speaking generally about creative works, about the process of creativity, about psychological disorders, and about how they all can interact. I unfortunately can’t speak specifically to Hutchinson’s circumstances or to his own work because, as I said, I’d only just heard of him, and I haven’t had the chance to get around to checking out his work. (I may do so tomorrow.) But many of these factors I’ve described are, I suspect, universal constants among creative works, among their creators, and among their audiences.

This was a long comment, and there was no particular reason I should have needed to write so many words. Yet I kept typing until I reached this point, because I wasn’t satisfied until I did so. I am, in fact, extremely hungry right now. It’s 11:15 pm right now. I last ate sometime around 3:40 pm. Yet the urge to finish writing this comment overpowered my biological urge to eat. I’d had thoughts floating around in my brain since reading Simon’s piece, and until I wrote them down I wasn’t going to feel satisfied. If I didn’t write them down, I was certain to forget a large number of them, and then they would likely be lost to me forever. (My short-term memory is particularly unreliable lately due to psychological issues that aren’t terribly relevant here.) The necessity to preserve these thoughts was, thus, more important to me than a basic biological necessity.

Such is the process of artistic creation. As I said, it often resembles a compulsion. Perhaps it often is a compulsion. In some ways, it can’t ever truly be satisfied; as I said, you may frequently reach a point where you think it’s no longer worth your time to work on a creative work, but it’s very seldom you reach a point where you think it can’t be improved at all. Often artists are their own harshest critics (or at least pretty high up on the list).

Perhaps, in this light, it isn’t surprising that so many artists have such a cocktail of psychological disorders. I just wish our society were more understanding and supportive of them – we might romanticise the tortured artist, but we romanticise the myth of rugged individuality more, and we have a major stigma against asking for help, even when we need it. I think American society would be a lot better off if we focused more on that other feeling I was describing just now: “you are not alone”.



I might go revise this further in a bit, but for now, the only other thing I feel it absolutely necessary to add is to reiterate McAllen’s call for anyone who needs it to call a suicide hotline. A particularly unpleasant quirk of human psychology is that discussion of suicide can sometimes trigger suicidal thoughts in others. If you need help, there’s no shame in asking for it – it would be a much larger shame to leave your friends and family devastated at your absence, because they will be should you choose to end your life.

*The earliest citations of the quote all appear to be linked to Alcoholics Anonymous, so it was probably actually originated by one of AA’s key figures like Bill Wilson or Dr William Silkworth.
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ďAll for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.Ē -Adam Smith

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