ALLIGATORS IN A HELICOPTER

a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Monday, December 19, 2005

I'm Too Sane To Be A Genius Writer

I think that's my problem. It's not my lack of discipline, it's my lack of angst. Either that, or I don't take enough drugs.

This comes after I read (well, was paid to read, I have no time for leisure reading) a biography of Philip K. Dick over the weekend.

As anyone who read any of Dick's works can probably attest, Dick might have had a questionable grasp of story structure at times (he often plotted his novels using the I Ching -- no index cards for Phil), the man was a genius when it came to imagination and theme and bending his obsessions and the details of his own life into generally-fascinating sci fi stories and novels.

Dick was also neurotic as hell. He was afraid of public transportation, and even had problems eating in public. He was paranoid and depressive, which was fed by his habit (don't do this at home) of fueling his marathon writing sprees (he could churn out a novel in two weeks) by taking a lot of speed, which didn't do a lot for his mental or physical health.

At times he thought that spirits were in his head. There were even some strange unexplained incidents, such as a voice in his head telling him a diagnosis for his young son which turned out to be right, leading to immediate successful surgery on his son. He also sometimes heard Greek, which turned out to even be an ancient form of Greek.

And we hear about things like this a lot. It seems that in every film we see about artists or writers or musicians, their genius is fueled by drink, drugs or some sort of mania.

Of course, this is something of a cheat, because the only movies they make of artists' lives are about the quirky ones. The disciplined, straight-arrow painters, composers and writers? Role models, maybe, but boring.

Still, there's no denying that a little madness, being a little bit out of control, can free up your writing -- or that maybe the price one pays for real genius is having to deal with a few mental problems and some pesky substance abuse.

I don't know. I'm not going to start doing drugs now, and I'm not going to get all eccentric. And I have quirky oddball details in my past, not enough to lure Kevin Spacey to play me in the movie, but enough to vibrate my psyche a little bit (though that doesn't include my stint in Mensa, in which I felt that most of the people there were too odd for me. Yeah, I don't qualify as eccentric enough at all).

Still, one has to wonder how far suffering for your art should go.

After all, my wife used to write poetry before we were married (not professionally, but dabbling), and she doesn't any more. Because she's happier now? Probably the reason.

And even going all Phil Dick doesn't guarantee anything.

Because Dick wrote 19 mainstream, non-genre novels during his life, that never saw print. Even after "The Man In The High Castle" won the Hugo, and even after "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" was adapted into BLADE RUNNER, there wasn't a publisher who would publish any of them.

9 Comments:

At 1:05 PM, Anonymous Donald McRonald said...

I also read a biography about Dick. Is this the one that mentions he and his first wife eating horse meat? If so, it was an interesting read.

My explanation for the whole troubled genius phenomenon is that the unique styles of thinking that give rise to psychopathology sometimes correspond with a unique perception of the world. By perception I don't mean that these people see or hear differently, but rather that the way they interpret the world is different.

In my opinion, one of the primary characteristics of the creative person is an inherent rebelliousness and an inability to accept customs that the average person would readily adhere to. I believe that creative people are born with a type of skepticism that ultimately leads to a relatively thorough understanding of reality. Instead of merely accepting presented truths, creative people try to actually understand the dynamics of reality.

This skepticism/curiosity is useful in fields like music, writing, and art, where innovation is critical. Mediocre writers/artists/musicians merely mimic what's popular and what's been successful in the past. Truly creative writers/artists/musicians develop an understanding of the dynamics of their craft and then apply their own unique style of thinking to this understanding in order to produce innovative work.

It should be fairly easy to see why a high level of inherent skepticism could lead to mental difficulties. If one is naturally suspicious then one may also be paranoid/fearful. Paranoia and fear can be linked to all sorts of psychological difficulties, ranging from things like schizophrenia to social anxiety. Substance abuse is often an attempt to self-medicate these problems.

Anyhow, that's a simplified take on this subject. I don't think it's a perfect explanation, but I do think that creative people possess a dynamic quality and an ability to generate novel ideas that's absent in their no-creative counterparts. This is really what separates someone who is merely technically proficient in their field from someone who truly innovates.

 
At 1:53 PM, Blogger Fun Joel said...

Scott --

Was it a book or script? Because I read a biopic of Dick that also focused on his madness. Not a bad script, actually.

 
At 2:41 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

It was a book, called "I Am Alive, and You Are Dead".

 
At 3:09 PM, Blogger MaryAn Batchellor said...

Well, that's very bad news for me because I'm perfectly... what? No! No! No! Get off my monitor! Hey! Are those my new Santa panties? Take them off! You're getting your penguin dandruff all over them!

 
At 9:20 PM, Blogger Brett said...

I agree that it seems a bit of a hoary cliché to demand that all artists be of the Van Gogh variety-- twisted to the point of absolute self-destructive loonytoonedness -- but clearly there's something to be said for the artistic value of being able (or perhaps unable NOT) to see things from the wrong side of the mirror.

I wonder if it's possible to maintain that off-kilter point of view while still keeping at least a few toes in the world of the sane and sensible?

That's my hope. And if it doesn't work, well, then to hell with it-- I can always drink myself into an artistic stupor, right?
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B

 
At 2:30 AM, Blogger Lab Lemming said...

Nice PKD blog, Scott. Something you need to remember, though, is that PKD also wrote a lot of tripe. For every "Faith of our Fathers", he also had a "Cadbury, the Beaver who Lacked". I chewed through a couple of volumes of collected PKD stories while researching POV twists last year, and all I can say is this- when he nail it, it is really good. But a lot of his work is mediocre, and there is a surprising amount of "never before published" stuff which is, well, stuff that couldn't sell even with his name on it.

This actually reminds me of a radio show I heard a few years ago on computer-driven music composition. Some guys had programmed a computer to write music, based on various mathematical patterns, and they claimed that they got results where their computer-generated pieces were indistinguishable in quality from some of Mozart's lesser known, unpublished works. They considered this to be an accomplishment.

Well guess what, guys. There's probably a reason those works weren't widely known. If thier computer had written another Zauberflute, or Eine Kleine nachtmusik, well that would be impressive. But even the greats have off days. Mozarts rejects are still rejects, and copying them is crap plus one (or crap indistinguishibility, in these guys' case) mentality.

Of course, in between the crap stories, PDK managed to crank out some absolute gems. So what I want to figure out is how *I* can sneak in a Marriage of Figaro or a Time out of Joint in with all the garbage I've written so far.

 
At 9:41 AM, Blogger Mark said...

Sanity is relative depending on your imginary friends.

Mark
Mark's Screenwriting Blog

 
At 9:49 AM, Blogger Lee said...

"I Am Alive and You are Dead" is a great, skewed "biography" of PKD. I wrote up my own thoughts on it here. If you're intersted though, Divine Invasions, by Lawrence Sutin is a far more balanced, scholarly view. I really enjoyed the subjectivity of "I am Alive..." but much of it ought to be taken with a pinch of salt.

 
At 10:38 AM, Anonymous Reagan Williams said...

It's always fascinated me how a lot of schizophrenic delusions are very sci-fi in nature -- and vice versa. Some works (e.g. Dark City, Twelve Monkeys) take it a step further and actually have the "sanest" person in the world be looked at as a crazy by everyone around him.
The impulse to make outlandish theories about your world (my life is a TV show and the people around me are actors) can lead to interesting fiction.

 

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