Pure, Uncut Imagination: The sibling rivalry between creativity and mental illness by Keith Ecker

In the 1971 musical film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the titular character demonstrates quite starkly the imagination’s power to both delight and terrify. In support of the former, we are introduced to a whimsical world filled with kaleidoscopic confections that are left in the care of a workforce of fanciful, orange-faced gnome folk. In the support of the latter, our exploration of this fantasyland is punctuated by horrifically violent atrocities against children and descents into fructose-fueled madness.

I enjoy this movie, not only for Gene Wilder’s deliciously eccentric portrayal of the King Lear of candy kingdom, but for the dualistic tone of the movie, which is one part Disney family feature and one part grindhouse horror porn. No other scene so elegantly conveys this binary nature than the ferry ride, which stands out as a favorite for many in large part because of its unapologetic attempt at mindfuckery.

In said ferry scene, Willy Wonka ushers the boatload of golden ticket holders and their guardians into the mouth of a mysterious tunnel. Once inside, nightmarish images begin to appear before the passengers. A millipede crawling across a dead man’s face. An axe chopping the head off a chicken. The frightened guests begin to scream and plead to Wonka to stop the vessel. Bathed in the glow of 1960s go-go lighting, Wonka’s whispered poetic response only ups the crazy.

This oscillation between fairytale sweetness and schizophrenic freak-out is an apt metaphor for the mind of the artist, or to be more specific, the mind of the writer. As Wonka’s mercurial tendencies illustrate, there exists a gossamer divide between the imagination’s ability to act as a doorway to wondrous and exotic lands and as a vehicle for excruciating mental anguish. I believe it is this inherent yin and yang quality of the imagination that causes mental illness and creativity to frequently go hand in hand.

While I admit I am not a scientist and have no rigorous research to back up my assertion, I do have veritable volumes of anecdotal evidence to support my belief, both as a third-party observer and as a life force trapped inside the claustrophobic gray matter of a writer.

As the co-creator of two monthly memoir-style literary events, one of which focuses exclusively on encouraging performers to eviscerate their souls and cast their entrails onto the audience in Gallagher-meets-watermelon fashion, many of the pieces I have had the pleasure to hear include vivid descriptions about how anxiety, depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder tinge the perceptions of the authors, reshaping their realities and influencing behavior. Sometimes the disorders are overtly defined, using terms derived from the latest edition of the DSM (the American Psychiatric Association’s encyclopedia of disorders and one hell of a coffee table book). Other times, the disorder is merely implied. In any case, mental illness occurs and reoccurs as a characteristic, and a frequent obstacle, in the personal essays of many of my writer colleagues.

I do not see what appears to be a near-universal theme among my cohort as coincidence. Writers are masters at fabrication. We can invent scenarios, envision alien worlds and give birth to a cast of personalities. (And, yes, even in non-fiction we construct falsehoods because the memory is imperfect.) To pull off this act of creation, we writers must use imagination – pure imagination. And while correlation does not equate to causation, our impressively sized imaginations seem to often be inversely proportional to the strength of our grips on reality.

To illuminate this idea further, allow me to park myself on the examination table and perform a self-craniotomy. Pull up a chair and put on a bib because it might get messy.

I suffer from extreme anxiety with a liberal sprinkling of clinical depression. There might be some attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in there too, but frankly I don’t like to subscribe too heavily to a diagnosis. All I know is that this wrinkly mass of tissue, chemicals and electrical wiring that sits inside my head is the one I was bestowed upon my birth, rewired by a rocky childhood and marinated in various substances. The end result is a mind that works well enough to get me from point A to point B consistently enough to cover my rent.

The symptoms of my neurosis manifest themselves in several forms, most of which are variations on the general theme of “what if,” as in what if that pain in my neck is cancer or what if that peppercorn in my salad is actually a bug. The most generic form of this “what if” thinking is where my mind compulsively concocts a series of events that usually take a progressively pessimistic path. This is what some therapists might call “fortune telling” or “mind reading” when applied to the act of assuming what another is thinking, particularly if you assume he’s thinking you should curl up into a ball and just die already.

In execution, it looks like this: I receive an email invitation to a party. I imagine two scenarios, one in which I go and one in which I don’t.

In the scenario in which I go, I imagine inadvertently buying the bottle of wine the host just happens to detest, missing my train stop, arriving late, standing awkwardly in the middle of the room as everyone wonders why I am there and why I bought that shitty bottle of wine, consoling myself by storming the buffet table, feeling fat, saying the wrong thing to the one person I cared to impress, hating myself for saying the wrong thing, splitting my pants on the dance floor, leaving the party alone, missing my train, and, of course, rain.

In the other scenario, the one in which I don’t go to the party, I imagine that everyone had the best time ever and they are all now best friends and I am a miserable nothing who is loved by no one and who will probably die alone in a puddle of melted cookie dough ice cream.

Mind you, at this point, none of this has actually happened. I haven’t even responded to the invite yet. But still my heart races and my palms sweat because my imagination has me believing both scenarios, though completely incompatible with one another, are simultaneously real. In other words, the same force that empowers me with my writing prowess is the same force that gives form to the amalgamation of neurosis – an endless loop of insecurities, self-doubts, phobias, compulsions and obsessions – that swim in the yolk of my brain.

I think it is precisely because of this two-cuts-of-the-same-cloth attribute that the act of creating art is so soothing to many of whose heads are a little off-kilter. It’s why you hear writers, performers and painters say, “If I didn’t [insert craft here], I’d just die inside.” In this way, creative expression is a pacifier, a way to channel the free-flowing impulse to imagine through a healthy outlet. Or to bring it back to Wonka, for those with the natural inclination to imagine, choosing to be an artist is to choose to live in a world of gumdrop trees and chocolate rivers rather than choosing to be trapped on a ferry ride through the hell inside your mind.

KSKeith Ecker is an entrepreneurial wordsmith who infuses the power of storytelling into everything he does. And he does a lot. A humorist, a passionate teacher and a noted member of Chicago’s performance literary scene, Keith keeps himself pretty busy. Keith is also the co-founder of PleasureTown, a new WBEZ radio drama series he created with Erin Kahoa. Explore the site to see what he’s been up to lately.