Thursday, May 5, 2011

Intersection of the Soul's Darkness

Sarah and I have been having an intermittent blogversation about writers, writing, and madness, which got started with my post Dancing in the Shadows of Madness. The next two posts in the series are The Shadows Within, and Voices in the Dark. This installment of the blogversation should be pretty much independent, but I hope a few people decide to read the earlier posts anyway.

I personally - not that I'm at all opinionated - think that the kind of creativity capable of generating novels that feel 'real', like the kind of creativity capable of creating great and intense art, music, theater, or for that matter new insights in science, is actually the same thing as madness, just better controlled. Or perhaps better focused.

To conceptualize something that doesn't actually exist vividly enough that you can bring it into a form of existence and make it temporarily real for other people takes a mind that works very differently from the norm. It took me a while to work this out: like most people I thought I was pretty much normal. Yeah, right. And just what is this 'normal' anyway?

It wasn't until I was well into my teens that I realized 'normal' doesn't seek isolated corners to build imaginary cities out of whatever came to hand and devise tales of how the tiny residents lived. 'Normal' doesn't write obsessively (no, nothing from that time of my life is publishable. I was in full angsty-teen by then, and I had no idea about certain techniques like... er... point of view. Not only did I head-hop in the same paragraph, I did it in the same sentence), nor does it read anything and everything it can get its hands on.

Perhaps more to the point, 'normal' doesn't think about everything, much less question most of it, even the most basic assumptions about how things should be. People who knew me then got to dread the question, "Why?". Sure, it was usually asked in a nasal whine - at least partly the legacy of six months of non-stop tonsillitis when I was four, during which I learned to speak nasally because my throat hurt so damn much - but I still wanted to know why things were how they where.

Why? is probably the most useful question in a writer's repertoire, closely followed by, "What then?". Between those two, you get conflict, which drives plot.

To dig out of that little diversion, it's not mentally healthy to question the fundamentals of your society. People build intricate mental models of how the world works so they don't have to think about the things they need to do - because if you stop to think about the mechanics of, say, driving, you're going to get yourself into all sorts of trouble. Upending those models causes chaos, and makes it more difficult to function in the world that generated them.

When the models in question are things like "how my society works", well... It's not hard to see where breaking that one leads. I should add that you don't have to like something to have a mental model of it. It's just that breaking it means you're back to dealing with things from observation and thought, which isn't easy.

Insanity can be considered as the mental state of broken/non-functional models. Sometimes it's chemical: there's a malfunction in how the intricate biomechanisms running the brain work (see Speaker's Lab Rat's Guide to the Brain for a whole lot of information about that). Sometimes it's situational: some circumstance overloads the models and forces them to break down. Usually people recover from the second one, but the first is something you live with, sometimes - like me - with lots of pharmaceutical assistance.

Not everyone can deal with that level of dissonance. I suspect that those who can are what gets labeled creative - they've learned to channel the dissonance into socially acceptable forms and to pretend normality well enough to more or less 'pass' (some better than others. I've become rather better at passing in the last few years. That or ceasing to care what other people think of me is delightfully liberating and no-one is daring to tell me I'm not socially acceptable).

At any rate, the kind of mind that can simultaneously live in ancient Rome with magic, this world, and eldritch battlefields facing all the demons of Hell, is not the kind of mind that gets the stamp of approval from whoever it is that decides what 'sane' is.

Having been given the option of mental hospital (I refused), I know what it's like to have everything break. I wonder sometimes if there's a better way to handle those who can't focus the weird into something acceptable, so long as they're not going to endanger others (if the voices are telling you that you need to kill someone, you do need to be on the wrong side of locked doors for everyone else's safety - unless you kill them in effigy, the way I do in my writing when someone has irritated me enough). I'm not sure that there's a nice easy dividing line, either. Hell, I know there isn't. Depending on how things are doing, I range from 'can pass' to 'needs suicide watch' (that hasn't happened in a long time thank God), and I'm far from alone in that.

The question that disturbs me, though, when I look at how savagely conformist the trends are at the moment (just ask Sarah about the state of schools in the USA), is whether we're killing the creative types before they can learn to channel their differences. Not much can give me nightmares, but the thought of a world without writers, artists, and the like does.


MataPam said...

Okay. Was my opus too long or is Blogger having a bad day?

MataPam said...

Look at any animal. Their behavior is highly instinctive. Some small bit of “learning from Mom” creeps into the mammals. Learning gets even more important in the Great Apes.

In humans it is absolutely necessary. But google “Twins raised apart” for some hair raising examples of how much control your genetics have over areas you would have thought completely learned behavior.

Pull out an anthropology text and look at the pace to technical innovation in our hominid ancestors. Millions of years of breaking rocks until you get a useable edge. Then some brilliant protohuman started using those little chips. Hundreds of thousands of years later they’d gotten to the point of deliberately creating a variety of rock chips. Tiny incremental changes with generations in between.

Then something happened.

MataPam said...

The pace of innovation skyrocketed. Venus figurines popping up everywhere. Paintings in caves. Spear throwers, bows and arrows, copper, brass, ziggurats and agriculture. All in the last 40K years.

What happened?

I think this is where Homo sapiens _broke_. Something went “wrong” and a whole chunk of instincts were lost. And creativity gained.

Some of us are more broke than others, More creative, but also with more holes in our instinctive social behavior. Some times broke to the point of requiring medication to function—once said medication was invented.

We’re outliers, not aliens.

MataPam said...

Ha! Take that! I saved it before I tried to send it. Brilliant! (Now why don't I remember to do that _every time_?)

The OnyxHawke Agency said...

Yes, yes we are. Conformity is the most damning epidemic of modern society.

Look at how few people go into research compared to getting a degree in "management" or the like.

Kate Paulk said...


Okay, that was an epic reply.

I suspect there's something to your idea there - the creative have always been the outliers, although different cultures have had different ways of dealing with that. In some eras creative folks would be the shamans, in this one they're seen as an aberration to be drugged into submission.

Kate Paulk said...


Do not get me started on MBAs. Your sensitive ears would shrivel up and crawl inside your skull, and that's if I manage to be polite.

The OnyxHawke Agency said...

You can't possibly have anything to say about MBAs I haven't said in a deeper voice.

Kate Paulk said...


Out of respect for the more or less family-friendly nature of this blog, I won't respond to that challenge.

Chris L said...

It's when you're trying to explain to the doctor why you *know* you have CJD, and they're asking questions like, "How long have you lived here?" and "Do you have a wide circle of friends?" that you know you're in trouble.

That's when I started writing. But the stuff I wrote was too much. As writers we need to conform or we're useless to anyone but ourselves. Okay, perhaps the *really* creative ones are different, but they still need to pretend to be 'normal' to be heard.

I don't want to be a creative genius, thank you very much. I'd rather be sane and...what do they call it again? Oh yeah, HAPPY.

Kate Paulk said...

Chris L,

If you can't keep enough of a toe-hold in 'normal' to at least be able to communicate with it. Pratchett is unquestionably a creative genius. He's also able to communicate his genius to everyone else - at multiple different levels (usually I see the genius on the second or later reading: the first reading is mostly the surface fun).

Try re-reading The Fifth Elephant and Thud! and looking for which modern groups the deep dwarves could represent in a metaphorical sense. Then look at when those books were published.

If you can't communicate the creative, there's nothing there but madness. It's a very thin line, and one most of us walk on a daily basis.

I never asked for it, either. I didn't ask for the piles of excrement descending from rotating blades on a regular basis, either, but I seem to be getting that as well.

As Sarah's Athena says, you always get what you don't want.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I'm very afraid Kate. It's not just the fill-in-the-blank, best prize for best follower education that scares me. It's the not teaching the kids the stuff they REALLY need to get along in the world. ... like our next door neighbor was shocked we made our teens bathe in summer. "I never tried to get my kids to bathe if they didn't want to." Or the famous sf writer who accused me of a being a child abuser because I made my son eat vegetables. (Mostly he eats broccoli, now, but hey, it's green!) They're not teaching the kids to be human, but they make them conform in the IDEA realm. Feral robots? What a cool thing to make a civilization with! As for people like me? I'd have gone irrationally evil by ten.

MataPam said...

Look at artists. Some times they flunk the creativity test, and are simply so offensive they're breaking new ground.

As writers we also need to be sure we're writing something meaningful, not just indulging our inner rebellious teenager. (Mine is downright _nasty_, but with editing, there's a decent story there.)I wouldn't say we should conform, but we need to tell our stories in a way that our meaning reaches a fair number of readers.

Kate Paulk said...


Oh hell yes. It's the worst possible kind of conformity: conformity of ideology, not action.

Feral robots would be a cool story (only you already wrote it, kind of sideways, in DarkShip Thieves). And I'd have imploded. I damn near did several times.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

ROFL helplessly at Pam's issues with commenting. Not bad laughing, Pam. (wipes eyes.) It's just good to know there's more of me out there, including the antropomorphizing of the comment mechanism. YES. I'm not alone!

The OnyxHawke Agency said...


I've made MBAs stop speaking to me after five minutes of explaining the deficiencies of the discipline. REALLY there is is little if anything I haven't or wouldn't say.

Chris L said...

I didn't mean to suggest I'm a creative genius, just that I'm happy not being one.

And yes, expressing true creativity should be the goal for us all.

Chris McMahon said...

I think there is always that pressure to be conformist. I would tend to think that it is your family, rather than society, who probably has the biggest impact on a person directly - certainly in the early life.

A lateral-thinking and intelligent child, who is bored by easy tasks and asks lots of questions, will actually be seen as having low intelligence if their parents are average and lack the empathy to understand their emotional trials (I have experienced this first-hand).

Gifted children often appear to be dysfunctional if their environment and stimulus is not matched to their interests and talents. They often end up in a difficult place, and sometimes in prison.

I usually see the cross-over into madness when the imagined worlds become indistinguishable from the real. That must truly be frightening for damaged people with powerful imaginations.

Dave Freer said...

Huh. I'm not mad. It's the rest of the species that's nuts(with a few exceptions, some of whom read and and write sf). _I_'m the sane one, I tell you! (this admittedly depends on your definition of sane. If by sane you mean average, no I suspect I don't cut it too well).

MataPam, thank for the wonderful explaination! Now I know why I and so many other writers are always broke.

I think that 'different' lateral thinking, spiderweb thinking, bizarre thought prelidiction are genetic species survival traits - just as runts and second-born eagles are. Most of the time when things are normal the first born eagle and bigger animals of the litter so outcompete the smaller, slower growing that they kill them. Only when times are NOT normal (food is scarce, spring is late) the little ones outcompete the others. They carry both sets of genetic possibility, just for this. Now humans are by nature colonist species so they OFTEN hit abnormal. And thus 'weird'is an advantage. Not in homogenised world though. There bog-standard trumps.

Kate Paulk said...


Schlock is easy (not Schlock Mercenary). It's something that gets done if the other methods in the toolkit for getting an emotional response fail. (See Sarah's "Ick" post).

New, creative and still able to communicate to the rest of humanity... THAT is the difficult bit.

Kate Paulk said...


Blogger's comments are evil. Clearly when Google bought blogger they failed to apply a large enough dose of holy virtual water.

Kate Paulk said...


GOOD. The only think you could have done that would be more constructively evil would be to make them think.

Kate Paulk said...

Chris L,

Sadly, this stuff - rather like being the responsible one - kind of happens to people rather than being something they choose.

It's a bit like the doggerel once seen on a wall...

How happy is the moron
He doesn't give a damn
I wish I were a moron
My GOD! Perhaps I am...

Kate Paulk said...

Chris M,

You're absolutely right about intelligent, creative kids. I went through school with the dreaded "does not play well with others" label. You know what? I didn't. The kids I had to interact with had nothing in common with me. Now I've got a decent group of friends, albeit scattered across the globe, and there's no doubt that I can too play well with others - if the others are prepared to play well with me.

I think I was somewhere around 14 when I concluded that society as a whole didn't give a shit about what happened to kids because they fed us crap and forced us into obviously unsuitable - and in some cases dangerous - environments (my highschool certainly qualified as dangerous - when you sit there and wonder if that rattly fan is going to fall this lesson or not, and move to the side so you're not quite so much under it... You get the feeling your safety really isn't a priority).

Small wonder a disproportionate number of highly intelligent kids end up concluding that everyone else is subhuman.

Kate Paulk said...


You're a well-respected simian. Judging you by the standards of mere humanity is just silly.

Yeah, I suspect that the oddlings who can survive the conformist pressures are the ones who end up being able to deal best with crises. Without directly invoking the P. word, I'm quite certain this is why the societies that are actively killing their oddlings are ultimately doomed. The question (worthy of a book which I - alas - don't have time to write) is how much damage they'll do before they collapse.