In the wake of Whitney Houston’s untimely death, I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity, talent, fame, happiness and demons. How many superstars can you think of who have had huge talent, huge fame, huge fortune and have died young in questionable, avoidable, regrettable and even embarrassing ways? Lots.
Why is that?
As I see it, there are many aspects to this dynamic of creativity, fame and happiness. One is the strange and paradoxical mythology that surrounds creativity. Creativity and talent do not seem to be distributed equally to each and every one of us, much as we might wish that. I believe that creativity is the ability to bring forth something new, something that had never existed before. Certainly creativity takes a multitude of formats, and most people recognize that talent can manifest as easily in an electrical schematic or a mathematical equation as it can in a novel or an aria, and yet it seems that some people are not blessed with any of these abilities. And when I use that term “blessed,” there’s the rub. In our western culture, most agree that having talent, having creativity, is a blessing.
I have had people tell me they wish they could write like I do. I’ve never asked them why. Is it being able to tell a coherent story? Being able to bring characters to life? Or is the fame (ha!) and fortune (ha!) that most people associate with talent? Certainly I love to write; it satisfies some deep internal drive that compels me to make up stories whether those stories are adventures, cautionary tales or flights of fancy. It does give me a huge sense of satisfaction to craft a story, to polish it, to mold it into something that I feel is complete and purposeful and entertaining. Does it make me happy? Yes and no. I love my books; I love the characters, I love the arc of the plots, the twists and turns of the journey, and I love the resolution that brings the characters to their ultimate triumph, understanding, or validation. While I’m writing my stories and later, while I’m reading them, I am happy. Does that spill over into every other aspect of my life?
I still have problems. I still have disagreements with my husband; I still have misunderstandings with my boss. I still get toothaches and headaches; my car battery dies or my dog gets sick or a friend takes a comment the wrong way. Does the satisfaction I get from writing help me through any of this? No. Am I still unhappy at times? Absolutely.
I believe the same is true for superstars. Whitney Houston had a phenomenal voice, and I have no doubt it gave her immense satisfaction at certain points in time. Did it solve all her problems? Apparently not. Michael Jackson was, at one time, the most popular and highest selling recording star in the world, as was Elvis Presley. Did it make them happy? Probably, at times. Did it solve all their problems? Apparently not.
Yet we have this unspoken expectation that talent like this brings great happiness. Watching the winner on American Idol or The Voice, we’ll say, “That girl has it made. She’ll get recording contracts and merchandising contracts and have money up the wazoo. She’ll have the world by the tail.” She’ll have fame and fortune; she’ll be rich. How can she help but be happy? As I’ve said, this is generally unspoken, but it permeates our culture. After all, have you ever heard anyone say, watching the winner of America’s Got Talent, “Hoo, boy, that guy is really in trouble. Give him a couple years and he’ll either die of an overdose in a hot tub or he’ll be found in a pool of his own vomit in a ditch by the side of the road. You mark my words.”
So here we have this myth that talent, fame and fortune bring happiness, yet we have glaring examples to prove that’s not true. As a matter of fact, we also have a different mythology that is the exact opposite, and that is the myth of creativity and the tortured soul. Go to Amazon and search under books for “creativity and depression.” You get many, many pages of books with titles like Manic Depression and Creativity, The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person’s Path Through Depression, and Writing Through the Dark Night. Think about William Styron, Ernest Hemmingway, Jackson Pollack, Edgar Allan Poe. Some people even believe that creativity and depression are directly linked, that creativity cannot exist without some level of psychological problems, that it either arises from or causes those problems. Is that true? All the very real examples above notwithstanding, I sincerely doubt it. (No one has ever labeled me a genius, but I have written 10 books and I’m pretty darn normal.) I won’t begin to say that I understand it all. It’s way more complex than I know, but some things have occurred to me.
First of all, some percentage of the population is going to have problems with depression, neurosis and even psychosis, therefore some percentage of creative people will have those same problems. The perceptual difference is if Joe Shmo drinks himself to death or suffers from crippling depression, no one knows about it. If a million-selling novelist or a one-name singer has the same fate, everyone knows about it. With our celebrity-hungry culture and the very accommodating media, the famous go down in flames that rival a Super Bowl halftime show. The more extravagant the demise, the more skewed the perception is that they couldn’t handle the talent and all that came with it. So I do believe some of this mythology (creativity = tortured soul) is the result of skewed awareness.
What I see as the really damning part of fame and fortune is license. Most of us chafe against the restrictions in our life: money, work, bills, family. We can’t do whatever we want whenever we want. We have to balance our wants against other things, other people. We have to compromise. Fame and fortune overrides so much of that. Want a bigger house? Buy one. Want to travel around the world? Do it. Want to meet an iconic person? Have your people call their people. If the name doesn’t do the job, the money will. No doors are closed. Access is assured.
But then that all-access pass gets embedded into the famous personality and everyone around them. What I mean by that is that no one tells them no. You’ve seen the entourages that surround famous people. Do you think any of those people are there because they say no? How long would Michael Jackson’s doctor have had that gig if he’d said no to M.J.? How long would any personal assistant have been with Elvis or Whitney if they’d refused to fill a prescription, buy a bottle or score some drugs? They’d be replaced in a heartbeat, and there would be 20 or 50 or 100 yes-men standing in line for the job.
From my viewpoint, I don’t see that it’s the talent, fame or fortune that destroys these people; it’s the lack of grounding. Very often the untreated drunk or drug addict that insists on continuing on their path will get hit hard with the consequences. They will lose their job, their family, their home, their freedom. If you or I had a drinking or drug problem, we would—if we were lucky—be confronted by family and be forced into treatment. Not so the star. When they go to excess, there is no pushback. They collapse on stage and there are a score of people to help them up, dry them out and enable them to continue in the same vein. And as they continue, they move closer and closer to the edge of the abyss.
Now please understand here that I am noting all this with a very broad brush. I am not saying this is true for every celebrity. I am not saying that stars don’t have family members who try to steer them to a safer, healthier lifestyle. But I am saying that we tend to see this downward spiral way too often, and it’s very sad.
So what conclusions can we come to? That both creative and non-creative people have personal problems. That creativity, in and of itself, does not cause insanity. That creativity is entirely separate from fame and fortune (trust me on this one). That fame and fortune is a two-edged sword and can give people a very distorted view of themselves and their world, and the unwary can fall into excess.
Can creativity cause happiness? Undoubtedly, in the short term. Can it cause happily ever after? Probably not. I’ve written 10 books and I am still susceptible to every human challenge from breaking a fingernail to stepping in cat barf to losing a loved one to being diagnosed with cancer and given 6 months to live. Such is life. We have good days and bad; we have joy and sorrow. There’s no escape. (Ain’t none of us getting’ out of here alive.)
Deal with it.