The Creative Compulsion

An attempt to understand and begin a conversation about the compulsion to write.

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For people who’ve written from an early age, or perhaps any age, writing can feel like a compulsion. It can make demands on your time that are unwanted. I can remember my first full-time job after university. In my pockets after a day at work would be yellow post-it notes filled with lines of dialogue and story ideas. I couldn’t help myself. I was sat at work (I had a decent role as an editor of academic texts) trying to proofread and copy-edit manuscripts, send emails, schedule printing, and there would be a plot resolution forming that I had to write down. It felt ridiculous, but at the same time essential.

Everyone has their own story about when they first started to write. It all began for me when I was a child, sat in my bedroom, back against the door, writing and writing in pads full of lined paper. I was given my first, rather unreliable laptop in my teenage years and started saving story drafts onto floppy disks, not trusting my meagre hard drive and reluctant to let anything slip away or be lost in a system crash.

It never really struck me that I was different from other people. I just thought that like me, no one really liked to share their writing habits or obsessions for fear of embarrassment. Did people really want to study medicine or mathematics? It was something they did for the money and to be respected for having a ‘proper’ job, after studying for a ‘proper’ degree, but inside everyone wanted to be a writer, a musician, a poet, or an artist, right?

Then I watched Quadrophenia in a film studies unit of a joint honours degree, and I thought, oh no, it’s an allegory for life outside the norm, and I’m going to be the lad on the scooter at the end teetering between the weekend world and the midweek world of work. I fell back and figured out how I could find the most normal job I could do without losing my mind to the monotony of it all.

This wasn’t enough, because the creative is separated from others by their inability to stop themselves from doing creative things. There is a voice in our heads, it tells us we must do something important before we die, hence the post-it notes.

I’ve feared in later life that the compulsion is separate from being good at the act of creation; a self-destructive impulse drawing me away from worthwhile pursuits. This leads me down a path of questions: is the creative drive OCD or ASD? Or is writing itself the treatment? It could be an act of self-medication, a way of filling the gaps.

Psychologists and psychiatrists haven’t ignored the creative compulsion. There are books and studies devoted to the subject.

Of all the creative arts, writing is the one most closely linked with mental illness, according to the NHS, but the findings aren’t conclusive on whether the compulsion to write is a form of mental illness in and of itself. The only thing that can be ascertained is that mental illness can be combined with the creative compulsion. Here begin arguments of cause and effect—does being a writer lead to psychiatric problems? Or, do mental health problems result in people trying to express their inner feelings in a creative way?

I could pretend to have an answer to these questions, but this essay is written from inside a single experience of the creative compulsion, not a point of universal wisdom. The only thing that I can offer is an opinion that writers, artists, and musicians spend time not only contributing to the wellbeing of themselves through the creative act, but also that of other people: their audience.

Moving on from the difficulty of finding a firm conclusion about the clinical correlation between writing and mental health conditions, I would like to proceed to the portrayal of the creative compulsion within the field of creative writing studies. The reason for this turn of focus is a playwriting book that I discovered while researching this essay, which describes the compulsion in the following way:

At the beginning of [the writing process] comes an artist’s creative compulsion. A psychological readiness factor precedes the process of writing. It isn’t usually an idea but a feeling, a need, a compulsion to create. Playwrights live for a while without the compulsion, and suddenly they realize that the need to write is becoming urgent. Their senses become more acute. Their view of life sharpens. Their imagination becomes more lively. They realize that they will soon find an initiating idea for a play. When writers experience the creative compulsion, their mind becomes a field of rich soil ready for seed.

Playwriting: The Structure of Action by Sam Smiley

I have an overwhelming sense when reading this passage that the playwright is treated as a different creature to the rest of society. I can hear David Attenborough reading the above passage in the same tone in which he’d narrate a mating ritual or an animal’s hunt for food. This quote also romanticises the creative compulsion.

To be fair to Smiley, who is a playwright himself and a professor of significant standing, now sadly deceased, he does come around at the end of the chapter to instruct playwrights to first and foremost write, but it is difficult to escape that between the quoted paragraph and the conclusion of the chapter, there are a number of impassioned portrayals, about how the creative finds their subject.

I want to be able to excuse the hyperbole as a mode of teaching, but I struggle to connect with statements like: “Plays of every length usually start with a single, dynamic image that provides the writer with the imaginative power to proceed,” because the only thing I can see in my own mind is a writer, sat in a chin-holding pose, having an ‘Aha!’ moment. In short, the presentation greatly simplifies my own experience of the way in which ideas arrive, and this troubles me because of the way it verges, as already mentioned, on caricature.

It is all very well finger-pointing. I hear you. I am not guiltless in this. An earlier line in this essay reads: “… the creative is separated from others by their inability to stop themselves from doing creative things. There is a voice in our heads, it tells us we must do something important before we die …” and I am the first to admit that it is a statement of over-inflated importance and should be edited out.

But you left it in for rhetorical effect? Yes and no, falling back on caricature is a convenience for all writers; I am no exception. But, caricature (intentional or otherwise) is a detour, for while it does feel different to be carrying around a creative obsession, to overly romanticise, or re-romanticise, making it a point of anthropological difference is too much. Especially when placed in the context of writing about writing, because there is a danger that it encourages the creative to lose themselves in clichés of genius and artistry, and haven’t we all been there at some point? This threatens to take them too far away from the act of creation.

More important than becoming absorbed by the identity of being creative is to learn how to live with a creative compulsion, and how to build on the desire to write. For this we need to be a little more clinical and a bit less poetic. Not for the purposes of seeking a ‘cure,’ or even understanding it as a condition to be managed, but as a counter-balance to romanticised portrayals which might equally threaten to derail the creative compulsion through expectations that it alone can elevate us to the status of a celebrated author if only we dress in the right clothes, drink excessive amounts of alcohol, experiment with hallucinogens, and wait for inspiration.

The intention is to argue that the compulsion doesn’t come pre-packaged with perfect writing skills. It is similar to the priming of a pump—the thing that starts us writing and keeps us writing. The visual artist is compelled to draw, and the repetition of drawing over and over again makes for a better artist. The same is true of the writer and writing, and combined with a willingness to learn from others (through works of fiction or instruction) it can be transformative.

These words aren’t so different in essence to those of Sam Smiley in his playwriting book, but I would like to continue to engage caution when it comes to tone and portrayal, because these can send us off course. I admit, the metaphorical use of priming the pump is not without its problems, and should be exposed to similar criticism. But, in defence of us both, describing something as internal and indefinable as the creative compulsion forces imperfect language. The challenge is to become consciously aware of the difference between using metaphorical language to fill a gap in our ability to describe a mental process and getting carried away with Romantic visions of the creative.

One solution is to hook ourselves up to brain monitoring equipment and let a clinician measure the activity to be found there but this is equally limited in its ability to fully describe the creative compulsion. The actual experience sits somewhere between the science and the humanities, and can only be known by those who experience it.

None of this is simple.

Of course, I am presuming that not everyone experiences the creative compulsion, but how can I know this? The answer is that this is what the medical profession and the artistic industry seem to believe in general terms. At the same time, I’m confident there are more people out there with the creative compulsion than will openly share this information.

This places everything in contradiction and we start to tie ourselves in knots about how many people have a creative compulsion and how we describe it. This isn’t surprising—I’m sat here at my desk with little more than my own experience and a few past conversations, when the only way for us to become more enlightened is for people to talk directly about how the creative compulsion manifests itself for them, if at all.

And it’s the if at all which troubles me the most. Is this whole essay a confession of my own individual mind-state? How shared is this? I find it hard to believe that writers would continue to passionately write without this compulsion, but people have told me this is the case for them. Conclusion: either they are unwilling to share the truth, or they are unaware of their drive, or it is completely absent.

I cannot answer for them or for you, so if you’ve read this far, please take the time to respond and share your own thoughts and experience to further the conversation. I would suggest that we talk about it both inside and outside the context of mental health. This isn’t to downgrade the importance of mental wellbeing at all, but simply to avoid forcing the creative compulsion into a framework of understanding that might narrow the discussion. It’s an important one and worth having with other writers and creatives; especially if you feel sometimes that the compulsion takes over.

Anthony Levings is a writer compelled by capturing moments in time and history.

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