Touched By Fire: An Artist's View

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Never, Marge, Never! I can't live the button-down life like you. I want it all: the terrifying lows, the dizzying highs, the creamy middles.

-Homer Simpson

Let’s get this out of the way: not all creative people are crazy. And not all crazy people are creative. But there is a persistent link between the two, and as someone who is both in spades, here’s my two cents.

Furthermore, not everyone with mood disorders like mine- bipolar, ADD-  appreciates words like “crazy” or stereotypes of artistic ingenuity and eccentricity. But since my whole life has been defined by all of these, and since I am a frank person with a caustic and twisted sense of humour,  and since I am not “everyone” but speak for myself, I speak freely and forthrightly about crazy creativity.

The link between the arts and madness may be nothing more than the relative forgiveness of such predilections. After all, if my main talents happened to be in surgical medicine or military sniping, the tremors in my hands caused by medication, or the disorganized flight of my thoughts would have horrible consequences. Creative work might be less of a given strength and more of a suitability. Or perhaps the messy and chaotic behaviours afforded to me by my artistic nature would simply not be tolerated in other circles and would hence magically disappear.

But like Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, I believe that many creatives are Touched With Fire. Though her brilliant studies diagnosing artists posthumously with bipolar disorder have come under, well, fire, the book Touched With Fire remains the seminal treatise on creativity and madness. In my own assessment, personal and of artist peers and art history, said  “fire” has everything to do with the rapidity and breadth and random associations of thoughts, which spiral and branch off of one another into infinity; and the intensity of perceptions and emotions. These are the beautiful things in my madness- imagination and experience. As writer Dave Eggers explains, “I see colours like you hear jet planes.” The Impressionist painter Monet said something similar. “Colour is my day-long obsession, joy and torment.”

Torment? Yes.  The dazzling intensity of life is also dangerous and exhausting.  It is incredibly difficult for me to focus and do one thing at a time, because my thoughts are constantly spinning and zinging one off of the other. This leaves many “common sense” aspects of self-care and organization undone. More, the height of joy or bliss can be so divine that it impairs rational judgement. Impulsivity and thrill-seeking do not always lead to healthy behaviours and great paintings. And when darker feelings are so intense that I cannot control them, I enter dangerous periods of emotional instability or suicidal ideation.

Dr. Jamison describes the artist- and the bipolar- as “amphibious, mercurial, many-personed and highly responsive.” The surreal depths of depression can act as “a ballast,” she writes. Depression “prunes and sculpts;” it “ruminates and ponders.” Van Gogh himself declared, “the more I am spent, ill, a broken pitcher, by so much more am I an artist.” The more expansive facets of mood disorders- mania- mimic very closely the adjectives we associate with creativity- imaginative, energetic, intensified, mystical, expressive, melodramatic, passionate.  “I’m so rich, I have to give myself away,” said artist Egon Schiele.

The tempestuous Lord Byron said, “I doubt sometimes whether a quiet and unagitated life would have suited me- yet I sometimes long for it.”

Like Byron, I could not bear another, quieter, more stable life. I will continue making every effort to harness the best of my qualities and evict the worst, but anything less than the full force of voracious creativity would leave me empty and unfulfilled. It is simply not who I am, and without it, I would be a stranger to myself.

That said, as I wrote in another piece about the mad singer Edith Piaf, my creative passion is nothing to envy. Remember that passion means “agony” and not just “ecstasy.” This is the fire in Touched By Fire. It is what Mozart referenced, I believe, in his spectacular requiem. Flammis Acribus Adictis- the fire that never dies, burning me forever.

Lorette C. Luzajic is an independent artist and writer in Toronto. She is the author of eight books, including Funny Stories About Depression, Fascinating Writers, and Dendrite Pandemonium. To see more of her art, photography, and writing, visit her at