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This is your brain on art

Portland psychobiographer William Todd Schultz's book "The Mind of the Artist" demystifies the driving forces behind creative inspiration.

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“You find it hard to control your thoughts. At work you get distracted by daydreams. You see patterns and connections where there are none. You often feel happy and sad at the same time. … You don’t filter information coming at you from outside, even stuff that’s irrelevant to whatever you happen to be focusing on.”

Having read this passage in The Mind of the Artist: Personality and the Drive to Create, I had to confess to the book’s author, William Todd Schultz, that I felt seen.

“People are saying that. It’s really gratifying to hear people say, ‘I never really knew how my mind works, and I’ve always wondered what was different about it, and this book is kind of clarifying some things for me,” he says, as we begin walking and talking near his home in Southeast Portland near Mt. Tabor.

The author lives in the house he grew up in, which becomes clear within two blocks, as he notes a house whose elderly owner, Mrs. Rowell, has been around since Schultz’s childhood; he used to play upstairs with her son. Rowell’s and Schultz’s are also the only houses on this street clad with distinctively misshapen clinker-bricks.

“They would put the rough part of the brick on the outside, which was unusual to do,” Schultz explains. “It’s the only two of us that have it.” The brick is beautiful not in spite of but because of its roughness.

Bricks are a good metaphor for the human personality, which is built piece by piece from inherited genetic traits and a lifetime of experiences. Yet in artists and other creative people, Schultz, who teaches psychology at Pacific University in Forest Grove in addition to his authorial career, has begun to detect patterns.

After Schultz spent years writing acclaimed biographies of musicians, visual artists and novelists, The Mind of the Artist looks at traits that creatives share. Though he takes issue with classic stereotypes of the tortured artist—“It’s a lot subtler than that,” he says—as Schultz’s book explores, artists and creatives are essentially the clinker bricks of our society: minds that are beautiful, if sometimes coarse.

“You just feel things more intensely, and if you’re a big feeler, it makes for a more challenging interior world,” he says. “Your mind is just messy and going off in all directions, and your filters are more porous. But for artists with the requisite talent, having that kind of chaotic organization can be really stimulating.  It’s like a muse, where you make connections other people don’t see. You can link things up in novel ways.”

Psychobiography, qu’est-ce que c’est?

Schultz specializes in what’s known as psychobiography, which applies psychological analysis to biographical data. “Psychobiographers flesh out the why, and they do so in a fashion they are uniquely suited for,” he wrote in his first book, 2005’s Handbook of Psychobiography, “by thoughtfully and judiciously applying psychological theory and experimental research.”

“I spent my whole career up to this point, really focusing on difference and how artists were unique,” says Schultz, whose biographies include 2013’s Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith and 2011’s An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus. “This book is more about sameness.”

Yet Schultz argues he’s not painting with an overly broad brush. “Of course artists are unique and they do things differently. They have their different habits, their different techniques and materials. I’m not writing a book saying, ‘This is the way all artists are.’ And it’s not like I’m saying that if you have these traits you’re guaranteed to be an artist. But I think I pretty convincingly prove that in the book there’s a generic profile of the typical artist and it has lots of components.”

Approaching biography from a psychologist’s perspective is particularly conducive to telling stories of artists, writers, musicians, and other creatives. What we inherently seek in their stories is a sense of what drives and enables their creations. “I’m fascinated by the process by which people find their authentic voice,” Schultz says.

Literature, Loss and Purpose

Schultz attended Franklin High School, where his mother worked as a book clerk. His father taught classes in classical Greek at Portland State University. The family was bookish, and “I always wanted to be a writer. All my heroes were writers,” he says, apologizing for their being almost all white men: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kerouac. Yet he began noticing a tendency to read through an author’s entire catalog “and get interested in the whole person along the way.”

Instead of literature, he majored in psychology, which Schultz believes was telling in another way. “I had a really damaging, disturbed family,” he says. As a teen, he saw a psychiatrist twice a week. “It was hard core because I was in pretty bad shape. So in college, I think first of all, I wanted to figure out my own mind.”

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He later learned that early loss is common to many famous artists. It might be the loss of a parent, like John Lennon experienced, the early loss of a sibling, like Kerouac, or even the loss of a stable home: from constant moving to different places, or from fighting parents. But it doesn’t have to be loss per se. “There’s two ways of looking at being damaged,” Schultz says. “You can be damaged by your external circumstance, like you could have a toxic family, or you could have this mostly baked in inner turbulence that makes you come across as fragile, moody, distracted, head in the clouds or whatever, but that’s part of your personality, and sometimes it doesn’t feel good.”

Pursuing a psychology Ph.D. at the University of California, Davis, Schultz found his niche—the psychology of artists—with the help of a professor who became a mentor: Alan Elms, “one of the few people in the country who was using psychological theory to make sense of artists and literary figures.” Elms helped Schultz win department permission, against the wishes of other faculty, to make his dissertation a case study: on writer James Agee. Normally a doctoral degree in psychology requires conducting experiments and conducting analyses, to develop a theory about human behavior. Schultz’s dissertation was a biographical analysis of Agee framed by psychology.

Persuasive Reckonings

After getting his Ph.D., a series of scholarly articles followed, looking at the lives of writers such as Roald Dahl, Franz Kafka, and Oscar Wilde. Six years after his Handbook of Psychobiography, in 2011 Schultz published two full-length studies: the aforementioned Arbus book and Tiny Terror: Why Truman Capote (Almost) Wrote Answered Prayers. (He also curates Oxford University Press’s ongoing Inner Lives book series, which Tiny Terror inaugurated.) Each book is interested in inner conflict as much as achievements: what drove Capote to sabotage his career by turning friends’ confided gossip into prose, and what drove Arbus to leave fashion photography to seek out people she called “freaks” but then portrayed with empathy.

Even so, Schultz remains a somewhat reluctant academic, and he doesn’t want his biographies, despite the “psycho” prefix, to be considered academic. “Psychobiography is sort of a rebel child of academic psychology,” he says in a follow-up message. “It’s odd but by far most psychologists have nothing to say about real people. I could have stayed an academic writer forever and many do but I wanted to be read by more than 12 people and I wanted to make people feel things!”

That’s why Schultz’s best-known book, his 2013 biography of the late Portland indie rocker and former Academy Award nominee Elliott Smith, Torment Saint, was a deliberate turn toward straightforward biography: a bit less jargon, and a less dispassionate tone. Because Smith’s 2003 death from an apparent suicide (following years of addiction and depression) has, like Curt Cobain’s, come with attendant conspiracy theories, it would have been impossible for Schultz to please everyone with his take on the tragedy. What comes across most of all is authorial compassion: what Bookforum reviewer Rhett Miller described as “a persuasive reckoning with Elliott’s inner demons and – much more important— a full appreciation, and celebration, of his undeniable genius.”

Author William Todd Schulz. Photo courtesy of the author.
The Big Five

To measure one’s personality traits and tendencies, in The Mind of the Artist Schultz makes use of a common general personality test (one not geared specifically to artists) called the Big Five, for its quintet of personality factors: Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Neuroticism. The test, as I discovered taking it twice, presents about 300 multiple-choice questions, each presented as a declarative first-person statement you either agree with, disagree, or claim an ambiguous middle ground.

The Big Five factor most closely related to creativity is Openness, which Schultz calls “creativity’s holy grail.” It might better described as the degree to which one can be moved. Do you cry at movies? Can the right orator’s speech make your hair stand up? Then you might score highly in the Openness factor.

“There are artists who aren’t high-Open,” Schultz says, “but they are so few and far between it’s hard to even think of examples. People who are high in Openness repress less. They have a wider range of feelings, both positive and negative.” In the book, John Coltrane and John Lennon are cited as examples, with influences from spirituality and politics to their wives’ artistry, which fueled their creativity.

In The Mind of the Artist Schultz also briefly notes another kind of influence: where you live. The highest-scoring places for the Openness factor were Washington D.C., then New York, Oregon, and Massachusetts. Lowest were Alabama, Alaska, Wyoming, and North Dakota.

Scoring highly in Neuroticism both is and isn’t indicative of creativity. “Because neurotics ruminate, because they dwell on self-created problems, they also tend to be more creative in generating unexpected solutions. They obsess, and their obsessions bear fruit,” Schultz writes. At the same time, high levels of Neuroticism do not predict creativity like Openness does. “Neurotic people fear risks,” he adds. “Creativity is risky, by definition.”

What about Conscientiousness, which is about discipline and rule-abiding, and Agreeableness, related to people-pleasing and conflict aversion? Schultz cites a 1998 study of 29 artists and 26 scientists, in which artists scored much lower on Conscientiousness. In his own testing, artists have scored lower on Agreeableness. “They are disagreeable because they’re opinionated,” he says. “They are dedicated to their own self expressions,” he says. “All artists are outlaws in a basic sense. They’re showing the world a different viewpoint.”

As if these Big Five personality factors weren’t enough to consider, each comes with a series of sub-facets. “I might have the exact same Openness score but might also have, really importantly, different scores on the components,” he says, “I like to tell people to look at your most extreme scores low or high, and that’s kind of the nitty gritty of who you are, in terms of traits.”

Having taken the test twice (after initially feeling encouraged by a high-Openness and unnerved by high Neuroticism), I had to ask Schultz: how fluid are these traits? After all, I sure don’t feel like the same person I was 20 years ago. “There’s a huge amount of research on that question,” he says. “What it tends to show is that there’s not a lot of change after around age 30.” On the other hand, he adds, “You can change how you cope with traits. You can change how you express them.”

The Chaos Rainbow

Perhaps the biggest takeaway idea from The Mind of the Artist comes from a quote attributed to Paul Cézanne. The iconic French Impressionist, known for his still-life paintings of apples and pears, described being creative as living “in a rainbow of chaos.” If you’ll forgive what sounds like a rejected greeting-card copy, the rainbow only comes after a storm.

Because creatively inclined people tend to repress less and feel more, the stimuli of even normal life can at times feel overwhelming, or at least chaotic. As Schultz notes, many writers and artist have described creativity as harnessing the chaos they feel. “Chaos is key. It delivers the raw material,” he writes. “It’s the portal. It is useful.” He also quotes novelist Saul Bellow, who described making art as “the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos.” It’s really that duality between stillness and chaos that’s important. Chaos is the storm, and the rainbow is chaos successfully fueling artistic creation. “The question really is … how is chaos shaped,” Schultz writes, “[and] how is disorder ordered?”

In a way, writing this book is a way for Schultz to find his own stillness. “I think of myself as an artist, too, when I’m writing these books,” he says. Yet like me, he knows that the most supremely talented are an altogether different animal. “You find within the greatest artists something irreducibly unique about them, and everything they do is an expression of that essence,” Schultz adds. “You don’t see it in most artists, but you do see it in the greatest artists. I’ve been obsessed with that for a long time.”

Brian Libby is a Portland-based freelance journalist and critic writing about architecture and design, visual art and film. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, The Atlantic, Dwell, CityLab and The Oregonian, among others. Brian’s Portland Architecture blog has explored the city’s architecture and city planning since 2005. He is also the author of “Tales From the Oregon Ducks Sideline,” a history of his lifelong favorite football team. A graduate of New York University, Brian is additionally an award-winning filmmaker and photographer whose work has been exhibited at the American Institute of Architects, the Portland Art Museum’s Northwest Film Center, and venues throughout the US and Europe. For more information, visit www.brianlibby.com.

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