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Writing And Madness

Revisiting some myths about creativity

Boat and lightning

When I was a barman, an English graduate with a marijuana habit and a discarded tabloid training course, I lived in the Chelsea Potter, 119 Kings Road, Chelsea, where my work, peers and customers taught me more about life and writing than I had learned in three years at university. (You have to meet the world in its fullness, from disappointed jockeys to villainous Italian washer-uppers; from lonely millionaires to lusty estate agents to fabulously dapper gay butlers. As a barman you get to listen to them and ask them questions, I gleaned.) Across the street there was a Waterstones. I could not afford anything in it but I used to haunt the shelves, reading the biographies of writers I loved summarised in the fronts of their great works.

Dylan Thomas, killed by alcohol at thirty-nine. Percy Shelley, drowned, probably manic at the time, at twenty-nine. Lord Byron, leeched to death, probably with sepsis, while campaigning to overthrow the Ottomans in Greece, at thirty-six. Sylvia Plath, suicide, thirty years old. Virginia Woolf, my greatest heroine, suicide after repeated breakdown, fifty-nine. Nothing I read there put me off my avowed course. I was going to be a writer. The desire in me was so strong I felt no doubt at all that it would come about, only about how it would. I was twenty-four. It took me five more years, though I had been practising in private since the age of ten.

Writers’ biographies promise the darkest kind of career. Divorce, breakdown, madness, addiction, penury, critical aversion, arrest, popular disregard, public ridicule and opprobrium, exile and early death stalk us. I could not have been less troubled by this forecast, which raises the question, does the pursuit of art exacerbate the human tendency to mental disorder, or is such a disorder a likely component of the professionally creative mind? Actually, I feel stronger that neither is true. I believe this is dead propaganda ripe for debunking.

By twenty-four I had experienced tinges of hypomania and had the full submersion in depression, both at university and both linked to drugs. (Rimbaud, Coleridge, Nina Simone and Bill Hicks provide powerful arguments for and warnings about drugs.) I was satisfied that if I could stay away from the substances the internal trauma would leave me alone. Narcotics preceded breakdown, I was quite sure. My current clinicians are unsure, but mental health is fiendishly complicated. There are no universal laws or solutions. I went from the pub to the BBC, where I spent my evenings and weekends writing articles and then books. At the same time, for good reasons, it seemed to me, I accrued a different kind of record.

David Horatio Clare, born 5/9/73. Caution, aged sixteen, for cannabis. Conviction for arson (a dispute with the Daily Mail group, my first employer); multiple convictions for taking without consent (a milk float), a Nissan Terrano 2 (a night run from Newcastle to Skegness attempting to save a relationship) and a 300-tonne crane barge, the ironically named Robin Hood); escorted onto a plane by the NYPD (verbal caution for making threats to a romantic rival); another caution for possession of cannabis in Soho; arrest in Gibraltar (released without charge — in the midst of mania I abandoned passport and wallet on a roof); a beating from the Guardia Civil in Spain (following swallows for a book I wandered onto a missile base near La Línea). Then more than a decade of responsible and productive citizenship, embracing periods of mild mania (fuelled by or fuelling illicit sex and cannabis use) and depression, linked to seasonal affective disorder and cyclothymia, a diagnosis I received in France in 2015, having been arrested (no charge) and taken to hospital by French police at the behest of my partner, who was alarmed by an evidently manic phase, exacerbated by fine wine, hash and heat. One night sedated and one night in a mental hospital resulted in this wonderful moment. Two excellent French doctors who told me I did not have bipolar, but rather cyclothymia, which is a rarer and milder form, which can be provoked into psychotic breakdown by drugs and alcohol, or calmly managed by sensible living, to which I am now committed.

Recently, overwork (launching two books simultaneously) lecturing, writing and facing the breakup of my long-term relationship with my child’s mother saw me hit my third breakdown / boil-over, during which I deliberately (and safely, fortunately) wrote my car off, danced naked on someone else’s and threw my laptop into the bath. I was arrested and taken into custody, released, no charge, and committed to an inpatient mental health ward under section two of the Mental Health Act 1983. Quite quickly I presented, in the jargon, as normal, was placed on medication, made a voluntary patient and after a couple of weeks discharged. I am now, officially, as sane and stable as you, dear reader, and very serious about staying so.

I feel regret but not shame for this record. No one was physically hurt. Damage to property was minimal (it was time that dirty old diesel met her maker). My friendships and relationships, especially with my son’s mother, are wider and stronger than ever. I have published fourteen books, won prizes for memoir, travel and children’s writing, travelled and worked in around sixty countries, established freelance positions of which I am proud with the Financial Times, the Spectator, BBC Radio and others, and taught hundreds of students. Dwarfing all this is my child, who has a dedicated and loving daddy, a fine co-parent for his wonderful mother, and is a happy, lucky and tremendous little boy.

None of this answers the question about creativity and madness, but it does help to frame it. For the same result, I would be delighted to do it all again. Yes, I am deeply sorry for the pain and worry caused to those I love, but I regard my own periods of suffering as fair prices. Would I do it all to myself again? Hell, yes. Am I grateful for my little troubles, given they are inseparable from my small triumphs? Damn right I am, every day.

The old saw that creativity and mental turmoil are old friends does not explain the relationship between writing and madness. I have learned my craft since the Chelsea Potter. Shelley was right, poets, and writers able to harness the power of poetry, are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and ever less unacknowledged, thanks to the internet. (Facebook has been buying my graduates for £132K starting salary.) We are not citizens of one country. We hold in fine contempt those who limit the chances and exploit the needs of our fellow citizens. We are warriors, and we are very hard to silence, to manipulate or intimidate. We affront corrupt authority: when a creative writing department is ill-led, for example, the most intelligent and productive employees can become delinquent nightmares for their so-called managers, and the crowd is always on our side. Stalin was right: you shoot us or we call out your evil.

One of my greatest friends and mentors, the genius Jeff Young, regards the job of a writer as inherently dangerous to oppressors: we are activists dedicated to disruption, upheaval and revolution. That is what we are here for. Socialism, Surrealism and Existentialism came from writers. We can move populations to fury or ecstasy, and we work for the forces of freedom: if you think them mad, then we are mad, out and proud. Taken on aggregate, the world’s writers over here, the power-brokers over there, who is the madder? No wonder that isolated, un-platformed or hemmed-in we become depressed or manic. For us the old gods never died. We know the names of the muses and they know ours. I once set off a lightning bolt: it’s true. I have friends among the spies, in the special forces, in the emergency services, none as dangerous as a writer. I can go places non-writers cannot: cunning, purpose and charisma take our kind anywhere. We always know the real story. There are no secrets from us.

‘Look into my eyes and lie to me,’ I said when I was manic. No one could. It is a terrible power. We drink the milk of paradise. You cannot stop us or buy us off, call us what you will. We teach laughter and derangement, we egg your children on; they venerate the works of writers when they have forgotten you. We read more than anybody, so as a class we know what is knowable. The best who ever lived were writers. We belong to Shakespeare’s tribe, to Beckett’s, to Woolf, Heaney and Homer. Two writers in a pub are an insurgent cell. Five of us are a riotous assembly. A hundred of us are a revolution. Who dares call us mad? We can take a pencil and a piece of paper and bring down a government. If you were ever gay and bullied, if you were weak or hungry, if you were persecuted or marginalized for being a woman or black or different or troubled there were ever writers on your side. Mad? Oh God, yes. I wear that dread dismissal with ferocious pride, with truly terrible glee.

Horatio Clare is the author of Running for the Hills and Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot, among other titles. His most recent books are The Light in the Dark and Something of His Art: walking to Lübeck with J.S. Bach. He lectures in non-fiction at the University of Manchester.

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