Thomm Quackenbush, author

Dying Is Not an Art

Mental illness is not romantic, though many artists reflexively credit their coping mechanisms for driving their art (the world is holistic and everything affect creation one way or other). Those who fetishize our mental illness are the spiritual decedents of the swallowers of lead centuries ago, so they could approximate an arty death by tuberculosis. If they could actually feel what went into that novel, painting, or album, if they had to live with the mental illness that treated this art as one avenue of therapy, they would be more careful with their genie wishes. Instead, they are hayseed tourists hucking peanuts at the freaks, jealous that they are not weird enough to be in the show.

I don't believe I am close to as afflicted as most with mental illness, but I would wish my depression and anxiety on no one, particularly anyone who wanted to create.

Would I give up my art for a mind more under my control? Obviously, this is purely hypothetical. I cannot make a Faustian bargain. Some try to claim medication is a fine stand-in for Mephistopheles, but my attempts at properly medicating my chemical deficits have only resulted in an increased ability to work. (I will leave it to my readers to decide if it has likewise resulted in increased quality.)

I do not think art and mental illness are intimately married, though they flirt with one another and too frequently and abusively cohabitate in the same head. Enough artists are mentally stable to sustain the industry. It is patronizing to assume the woman struggling through a panic attack just needs a paintbrush in her hand. When I am tense with anxiety, my ability to write is the first thing to go.

Yes, I cope by trying to turn my pain into something beautiful, something I can shine up to a cabochon in hopes I will one day find the right setting. If I didn't do this, I don't know if I would lose my mind, but I know I would no longer be myself. However, it is not the mental illness that drives me to write. I want to write because I feel I have things to say and this is the best way I have learned to say them.

It is a base insult to say that I need my mental illness to be productive, especially when it is so often the thing holding my tongue. Getting even a little better has removed some of the boulders that interrupted my streams of conscious.

The pain of a trauma may force my hand that I might reach equilibrium, might produce twenty-thousand words I spend months trying to reconcile, but the point is merely that they are out of me, not that they are art. My best work comes from the pleasure of creating, not from therapeutic purging, so how can they be born of my mental illness? I am never satisfied with things I felt I had to write rather than something I chose to write. What I've written from despair often hurts too much to revisit later.

I believe my mental irregularity led me toward the busy solitude of reading, the need to construct worlds where I could feel at ease when I knew no other way. I do not believe it kept me there. Once I developed the knack and talent, my mental illness only prevented me from motivation and from trusting myself enough to be sufficiently confident to explore. If you like what I do, you want me as sane as possible.

You should never as much as joke that you prefer troubled artists with the same linguistic flair you trot out to accuse every exotic dancer of having been raped by a family member. Mental illness can debilitate us, stealing our art from our hands long before you get a chance to experience it.

If art were a cure to mental illness, then there is a terminal project after which one was too sane to continue. Art is a time intensive occupation. If it were merely a matter of the right pill or therapy as the myth claims, I could have time to play video games without guilt instead of feeling they are moments wasted that could be better spent creating. Art is a way we try to turn out angst into something that isn't easting us from the inside out, but the art comes from a beautiful place in our souls. Maybe the illness inflates so that the beauty must reach the surface to remind us of our goodness. Art uses everything we have within us, so it will seize upon the illness and the pain, but I think it would rather nibble at our joy. Who prefers a meal of bitterness and ash, after all?

You may see something raw, painful, and ugly that an artist has made, but that is only because we had to spit out the indigestible poison so that we could live long enough to remind you of summer peaches and tomorrows.

Mental illness is no friend to the arts, nor are you a friend to artists when you suggest otherwise. You want us destroyed to fulfill a jackass's myth. You tell us that Van Gogh would have been a nobody if he had gotten the help he needed. I tell you that he would have remained Van Gogh, but we would have dozens, it not hundreds, more paintings because he would have survived to paint them. Even if he didn't, even if we listen to the unctuous lie proffered by vultures, his life had more value than your glancing aesthetic notice.

Maybe I say all this because I don't want it to be true, that I cannot have the best part of myself, the part I hope will last, without the part I suspect would like me dead. If my art comes from illness, sanity should force it to taper, but I have only grown more capable. The fountain that feeds my art must find its spring somewhere else, a place of hope. A place where I would care to live.


Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings.


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Works by Thomm Quackenbush

Anthologies

Find What You Love and Let It Kill You by Thomm Quackenbush
Pagan Standard Times: Essays on the Craft by Thomm Quackenbush
A Creature Was Stirring: A Twisted Christmas Anthology by Thomm Quackenbush
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