The Artistic Temperament


“The artistic temperament sometimes seems a battleground, a dark angel of destruction and a bright angel of creativity wrestling.”   ~ Madeline L’Engle

Depression or some other related mood disorder afflicts about 1 in 10 Americans.[1]  While this is worth noting statistically to show that it is a growing and common problem in our culture, there has always been a disproportionate number of writers and artists who suffer from some type of mood disorder.  There are many theories that are still being debated as to why this might be, but the cause is still not completely understood.

Some say there is a genetic or biological predisposition to mood disorders, which can also produce an extraordinary creative talent or genius.  Others debate that the same sensitivity and awareness required to produce great works of imagination also make one sensitive to the shadow side of life, inflicting a higher tendency toward melancholy, depression, anxiety, or addictions.  Others conclude that abuse or other trauma is the cause, while others claim a more utilitarian approach: art is often simply the result of individuals trying to express or create meaning out of their experiences, whether celebrating life or simply trying to rise above its wounds.  Perhaps it is a combination of some or all of these factors: an alchemy unique to each individual, and therefore not easily defined.  This latter position is the one I prefer to take.


In her book, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament[2], Kay Redfield Jamison (a physician who also writes from personal experience) explores a more clinical approach to this subject.  She writes:

 The fiery aspects of thought and feeling that initially compel the artistic voyage—fierce energy, high mood, and quick intelligence; a sense of the visionary and the grand; a restless and feverish temperament—commonly carry with them the capacity for vastly darker moods and grimmer energies, and occasionally, bouts of “madness.”  These opposite moods and energies, often interlaced, can appear to the world as mercurial, intemperate, volatile, brooding, troubled, or stormy.  In short, they form the common view of the artistic temperament, and, as we shall see, they also form the basis of the manic-depressive temperament.  Poetic or artistic genius, when infused with these fitful and constant moods, can become a powerful crucible for imagination and experience.

Dr. Jamison also makes the point that there is much more to the artistic temperament than that which falls into a “biological or diagnostic grid.”  Obviously, not all writers and artists suffer from the effects of a mood disorder or other mental illness.  I mention her work here as but one factor of the shadow experience.  Whether we as writers and artists fall within her grid of experience or not, the focus of this blog is how to harness our shadow experiences– in whatever form, substance, or circumstance–into an act of creation and healing.


Next week I will post about an extraordinary man, Victor Frankl, who has much to say on this subject from a slightly different perspective.  For those of you not familiar, Dr. Frankl was a Jewish neurologist and psychiatrist in Vienna during the 1930s, and was eventually condemned to die in Auschwitz during World War II.   He miraculously survived the notorious death camp and afterward wrote a book about his experience:  Man’s Search for Meaning.  One of the three primary ways Dr. Frankl believes human beings find meaning is through the act of creation–whether artistic or some other body of work.  He believes that finding such meaning is essential to our mental, emotional, and spiritual health.  Please tune in next week for that discussion.

[1] Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2011 Statistics)

[2] Jamison, Kay Redfield. Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 1993 (pp. 2-3)

Photo Sources (in order of appearance):


Lucio Torre, Photographer.

Raven Raith.

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