Does creativity depend on raging hormones?

As the novelist Amanda Craig dealt with early menopause, she was shocked to find she'd also lost the ability to write

Tuesday 27 December 2005 01:00

The report earlier this month that creative people tend to have a higher sex-drive than the norm struck a rather personal chord. Due to a run of bad health, I am recovering from the consequences of three major operations in the space of 18 months, the most recent being the removal of an ovary. My surgeon assured me that the remaining ovary would produce the missing oestrogen, but the result was that, at just 46, I went into premature menopause.

People do not like to talk about what this does to you because, in our hyper-sexualised society, we are supposed to feel ashamed of no longer being fertile and sexually up for it. That is bad enough but, for an artist, in my case a novelist, losing my mojo also seemed to have a disastrous effect on creativity. The flow of words, ideas and images that seemed as inevitable as breathing was gone.

I always took Freud's explanation of the creative impulse as displaced sexuality with a big pinch of salt, for the impulse to write, however painful and puzzling at times, seemed to be a mental or spiritual process entirely divorced from anything that happened to me physically. I have written in raging fevers and in every stage of pregnancy; when happy, unhappy, sick or well. How could the art of fiction have anything in common with, well, a little light friction?

The first thing I noticed after my operation last summer was that I was no longer having any dreams. Psychologists say this is impossible, but I was waking up with a mind as blank as a sheet of paper. I have never discussed with other novelist friends how much we are dependent on the nudges and impulses of dreams for inspiration, but I should think that it is much the same for all of us.

When writing a novel, I tend to get so involved with my characters that I dream about them. I hear them, see them, feel as they do. Even with the nastiest (the ones I most enjoy creating, of course), it is a process that feels oddly like one of mutual seduction. As I get to know a character, so they invade and influence aspects of my personality.

Eventually, these imaginary beings become so vivid to me that I am more or less dreaming with my eyes open. It is a bit like demonic possession, and it is, as I've come to realise, intimately intertwined with the ebb and flow of hormones that saturate us all in adulthood.

Renoir said, notoriously, that he painted with his penis. I've always thought that ridiculous (not least because it implicitly denies creativity to women). But I have always thought that writers do use something essential - call it their life-force - when inventing a world. I'd often wondered why the Muses, to a male artist, were always of the opposite gender: was it only an excuse for erotic fantasy?

Declining sexual powers do not necessarily mean the decline of artistic ones: in fiction, despite the cult of the photogenic "Young British Novelist", the best books are written by those over 40. Now, however, as I found myself sprouting a luxuriant blonde moustache; as my hair sank into brittleness and the juices in my body withered, I found that the impulse to write dried up, too. At night, I sweated and burned, not from excitement at a good idea but from hot flushes. I felt as if I was being cooked from the inside. I tried soya milk and natural remedies, hoping my ovary would, as promised, get going. It didn't.

I stopped being able to create metaphors. This ability, one of the simplest but most satisfying aspects of writing, is often a measure of youthfulness in prose. If you look at a book by a writer under 35, what strikes you most is the abundant fertility (that word again) of verbal imagination, which resembles a small child dressed up in every bit of jewellery it can find. Older novelists, however, use metaphors sparingly. I had thought this a symptom of confidence and craft: now, I wonder. I would look at a puddle or the sky or my children's faces and nothing else would spring into my mind with that little electric thrill of language.

The irony is that I'd always thought it would be wonderful to feel like a child again. Not only is childhood an exceptionally creative period, but I have made all the worst decisions of my life under the influence of hormones. Repulsive men, boring jobs, ugly clothes and crude entertainment were all accepted because I was not entirely sane at certain times of the month. I had, in fact, looked forward to becoming a crone, not least because every modern woman novelist I admire has produced her best work in her fifties. Now, I felt awful. My moods no longer waxed and waned but were flattened under a neon glare of indifference. I was writing stuff that felt like dry powder, colourless, ground out of sheer toil and craft. What was wrong?

A month after my GP gave me a routine blood test that revealed my operation had plunged me into premature menopause, I was sitting in my local hospital talking to a nice woman doctor. I could, she suggested, safely take HRT as it would simply be replacing what I should have in my body at my age anyway. It all sounded horribly artificial, and the warnings about a minutely increased risk of cancer were sombre, but, having already had my life saved three times by conventional medicine, I was ready to try anything, even the red-brown pills that looked like drops of dried blood.

So I took the packet of pills, reluctantly and sceptically. A month later it has all come back; the ebb and flow of change, of blood, of life as an adult. I am dreaming again, and my characters run, joke, fall in love or lose their temper. They, and I, swim on a tide of hormones.

Whether it is true that artists have a higher sex-drive, I don't know, but this I do: we are such stuff as chemists dream of, and the smallest change in metabolism affects our minds as well as our bodies.

Amanda Craig's latest novel is 'Love in Idleness' (Abacus, £6.99)

Portrait of the artist: highly sexed, alcoholic and short-lived

* Creative people have, on average, twice the number of sexual partners as the wider population, according to a study by psychologists at Newcastle University and the Open University.

* The study also found that the more seriously creative people pursue their art, the more sexual partners they are likely to have.

* Artists also share many of the psychological traits of schizophrenics, including "unusual cognition", which can cause them to feel overwhelmed by their own thoughts.

* Of prominent American 20th-century writers, 71 per cent drank to excess, according to Professor Donald Goodwin of the University of Kansas. This was higher than for any other occupation group. He also showed that more writers die of cirrhosis of the liver than any other occupation other than bartenders.

* Artists have shorter life-spans than the general population. Poets have the shortest of all, shorter than almost any other class of professional.

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