The Madness of Art


We work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art. — Henry James

I’ve often wondered if one needs to be at least a bit mad to be a great artist, writer, composer. I guess you don’t have to be, but it doesn’t seem to hurt. Most people spend their lives trying to fit in, to be the envy of everyone else. Our goals are largely the same goals everyone else has: To achieve financial freedom, to have all the latest and greatest toys, to have a big impressive house, to drive a fine car, wear fine clothes.

What if you don’t care about those things? I’m not a corporate climber, it’s just not in me. I am largely content with a modest lifestyle, although a little more bank wouldn’t hurt when it comes time to deal with home repairs. Am I mad? Probably, a little bit. I think it runs in the family, though. That said, none of us has managed to parlay that into an artistic lifestyle. Maybe sometimes mad is just mad.

Joan Didion spoke about death of her husband in a 2005 interview with Emma Brockes of The Guardian:

“I had to write my way out of it. Because I couldn’t figure out what was going on. By the time I started it – John died December 30, I didn’t start writing until October – I was out of the phase where I didn’t know I was crazy. I was still crazy, but I knew it. So, it was a step back.”

The result was “The Year of Magical Thinking.” I guess it’s ok to be crazy, even when you know you are.

Would anyone  consider me crazy? Probably not. A little weird, maybe, but mostly I try to rein it in when I’m around other people. I think most of the time I seem rational, intelligent, normal. I try to keep my weirdness to myself. My thought processes often segue in ways other people’s don’t. Small-talk is a skill that continues to elude me. I don’t like talking on the phone. I was famous in high school for not calling friends even though I had said I would. I think it was the small-talk issue. I’m a deadly bore at parties. Usually I try to find an excuse not to go at all.

I recently read about another writer who was hopeless at interviewing. Instead of conversing and answering the questions, she would find herself distracted watching sunlight on the floor, working up a description in her mind. I used to do that sort of thing more than I do now. Everything that happened in my life was being transcribed mentally, as a scene in a story. Does anyone else do that?

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