I always knew I had a screw loose. Since I was a kid I often didn’t stick to some of the jobs I was given. Even then I was disorganized, forgetful, suspicious of authority, easily bored. I often think I became an artist because I thought it to be a form of self-employment which I could tailor on a daily basis to suit my span of concentration and degree of commitment. At the same time I was aware that I was capable of terrific focus and accomplishment when I put my mind to it.
The fact is that a fair percentage of artists, in greater or lesser degree, have Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD. In my case I have never taken medication for the condition. Actually, no one ever told me I had it. I just accepted what I knew about myself and lived with the weaknesses — called them my “bad habits” — and devised schemes to lessen the negative effects on my life.
My symptoms were chronic: Easily distracted. Daydreamer. Often tactless. Habitually late. Cluttered environment. Avoiding responsibility. Procrastinating. Good starter — poor finisher. Intolerant of boredom. Biting off more than I could chew. Here are a few of the structures which I use to fight my disorder:
Employing the Day-Timer habit.
Strapping the waste-basket to my body.
Instituting rigid anti-doodling regimes.
Prioritizing obligations and commitments.
Becoming fascinated with clock phenomena.
Pre-visualizing projects for follow-through.
Customizing tasks to avoid becoming bored.
Anticipating daily capabilities and creative metabolism.
Delegating ancillary work to others.
Putting a policeman at the corner of my mouth.
PS: “While some aspects of ADD work in the artist’s favor, other aspects can create challenges to achieving work and life success.” (Bonnie Mincu)
Esoterica: Bonnie Mincu is one of the artists who attended the recent workshop on Vancouver Island. When she’s not painting she’s a respected ADD coach in New York. She has kindly prepared an excellent 5 page strategy paper called Artists and Attention Deficit Disorder.
The following are selected responses to the above letter. Thanks for writing.
by Tina Mammoser, UK
Thank you thank you thank you for that letter! Wow, the linked article was so revealing. In the past I have thought I might have ADD but brushed it aside thinking I was being a bit hypochondriac (too much info from the internet can do that). But there was just too much here that is me. I did the checklist, nodded in agreement with the ideas, and then got to the part about doodling and having a tactile replacement. All my life I have done this weird rubbing, wrinkling thing with paper — everywhere I go! With napkins, place-mats, flyers, money, pages in books, pretty much anything. It drives my mother insane! Most of the time I don’t realize I’m doing it but if I’m talking to someone I will pick up anything I can — even a small piece of tape. Luckily, I’ve recognized my ‘weaknesses’ from early on. I know I’m a starter, not a finisher. I work on several things in several mediums at the same time. I know I can’t do the boring bits — so unlike friends I don’t do my framing, stretching, or make my own paints. I simply couldn’t bear it! In a way, this helps me as a professional artist. I know my materials are quality (I pay for it) and while I still do love finishing a painting it has completed its journey for me. I’m happy to sell it so I can start another (or another few!) Now I need to decide if I want to speak to my GP about ADD. But since visiting the doctor is one of those mundane tasks, I’ll probably never get around to it. :)
(RG note) I was having dinner with a friend who was somewhat critical of my ways. He pointed to my crumpled napkin and said, “See that napkin — that’s what your mind is like.” Without checking with the policeman at the corner of my mouth I pointed to his and said, “See that napkin — that’s what your mind is like.” His was neatly folded, unused.
by Andrea Pratt, Delta, B.C., Canada
ADD/ADHD in adults is a hot topic in psychology/psychiatry these days, and the most interesting thing for me is the creative connection. As someone who “suffers” from this disorder, I believe that it’s better described as one end of the spectrum of what’s human and normal. Thom Hartmann has written a fascinating anthropological/sociological book that describes people with ADD in a highly positive/affirming way, as the leftover “hunters/gatherers” in a world overwhelmingly populated with “farmers.” His book on this is entitled, Attention Deficit Disorder: A Different Perception.
Hallowell and Ratey, the authors of the highly-popular books, Driven to Distraction and Answers to Distraction discuss ADHD “subtypes,” one of which is ADD in the creative person. They cite four noteworthy ADD traits that contribute to creativity: a greater tolerance of chaos, impulsivity (what is creativity but impulsivity gone right?), the ability to hyperfocus, and the “hyper-reactivity” of the ADD mind (cousin to the traditional symptom of hyperactivity, hyper-reactivity is more common among people with ADD than hyperactivity is). Hallowell and Ratey have also drawn up a formal diagnostic questionnaire that is often used to identify ADD in adults, since there is not yet a standard psychiatric diagnostic tool.
Suggested Diagnostic Criteria For Attention Deficit Disorder In Adults
NOTE: Consider a criterion met only if the behavior is considerably more frequent than that of most people of the same mental age.
A. A chronic disturbance in which at least twelve of the following are present:
l. A sense of underachievement, of not meeting one’s goals (regardless of how much one has actually accomplished).
2. Difficulty getting organized.
3. Chronic procrastination or trouble getting started.
4. Many projects going simultaneously; trouble with follow through.
5. A tendency to say what comes to mind without necessarily considering the timing or
appropriateness of the remark.
6. A frequent search for high stimulation.
7. An intolerance of boredom.
8. Easy distractibility, trouble focusing attention, tendency to tune out or drift away in the
middle of a page or a conversation, often coupled with an ability to hyperfocus at times.
9. Often creative, intuitive, highly intelligent.
10. Trouble in going through established channels, following “proper” procedure.
11. Impatient; low tolerance of frustration.
12. Impulsive, either verbally or in action, as in impulsive spending of money, changing
plans, enacting new schemes or career plans, and the like; hot-tempered.
13. A tendency to worry needlessly, endlessly; a tendency to scan the horizon looking for
something to worry about, alternating with in attention to or disregard for actual dangers.
14. A sense of insecurity.
15. Mood swings, mood lability, especially when disengaged from a person or a project.
16. Physical or cognitive restlessness.
17. A tendency toward addictive behavior.
18. Chronic problems with self-esteem.
19. Inaccurate self-observation.
20. Family history of ADD or manic-depressive illness or depression or substance abuse
or other disorders of impulse control or mood.
B. Childhood history of ADD. (It may not have been formally diagnosed, but in reviewing the history, one sees that the signs and symptoms were there.)
C. Situation not explained by other medical or psychiatric condition.
by Paula Sue Butts, Folsom, CA, USA
Robert, you have probably described more people than care to admit. You’re a classical adder. It took me 35 years to finally seek out medical help for my problems that so called normal people did not have. It took another 5 years to accept the diagnoses, even on medication. It was like having leprosy to me and extremely painful for me at times. After many years of struggling I threw my hands up. Now, I say who really cares, who really gives a hoot now that I am not working in the corporate environment. It was always hard to keep my problem hidden. I was always doing things so different and it was hard, even though I learned over 20 computer software programs and knew most to the highest level and taught them–I still felt less than. I used to think I could not run the programs as fast as others, but actually, that was not true at all. I could work them faster, I just got distracted and wanted to make complex magic happen rather than do the boring work. It really was not my thing. Then, I found a lady named Jeanne Bolin in my home town, a painter for 50yrs. She became my mentor and close friend. She understood me. Gosh, aren’t we misunderstood so much, it’s a shame. It’s a curse to the bone. Of course, my medication does help, when I take it. But, man ‘o man we really have great twisted minds and sense of humor.;-) Yes, I have learned to really like myself and I’m okay.
Keep up the hyperactivity
by Faith Puelston, Germany
Keep up the hyperactivity. All the creative people I know are like honeybees, stopping at all (nectar) stations, and never staying for long at any. It’s part of the act. Even if you think something is finished, it never really is. There’s always something new to catch the eye. Nobody has become renowned for boredom, but I know a lot of boring people with organized lives and straw between their ears! All the things you mention smack of trying to escape boredom, and all the things you do to keep you on the straight and narrow.
Got it big time
by Sandy Sandy, Tabernacle, NJ, USA
Couldn’t focus on today’s project until I responded to your letter. I’ve got ADD big time. So does my Dad and all my siblings. Probably one of the reasons I can relate so well to you and your letters. I can see first hand how it could be a detrimental force in one’s life. It also has its benefits and can be a strong driving force if one such as myself is able to live the passion they focus on. People are amazed at my production and “obsession” with my work. I never attributed it to a disorder before I read today’s letter! I would not be me without a lot of those traits you list. I would hate to take a drug and have it all disappear tomorrow!
by Seataka Suzanne Selby
I’m so glad you mentioned ADD and Artist in one breath. I have some very supportive information concerning this — a book by Kay Snow Davis called Point of Power: A Relationship with Your Soul. This insight got me off the hook and supported me to find ways to be me without a label of disease. I also escaped the drug route… Whew! Another angle on this is Indigo Children by Lee Carroll and Jan Tober. For anyone who wants to get control and understand attention, I recommend Section I of the Avatar course. See also www.starsedge.com It deals specifically with attention, intention and use of your will.
by Jim Rowe
You missed the boat when you “instituted a rigid anti-doodling regime.” Doodles are the basis to all my artwork. You have to let what you are and what is inside you flow out onto the canvas, that is what is really valuable. Other than the obvious form of income, you are wasting your time painting those landscapes.
by Jane Champagne
Labeling is dangerous. By attempting to label artists as ADDers, Bonnie Mincu has not only done artists a disservice — self-fulfilling prophecies can paralyze — but you as well. Sounds to me like the latest bandwagon: Remember when past-life experiences became such a fad that even the law courts were duped? Artists are artists are artists. We are not like other people — but then, other people are not like us. Why not just accept the fact that your “screw loose” is simply your creative personality. ADD attempts to make us all the same, turn us into little carbon copies of whatever current “personality” is popular. Come on, Robert, do you really want to be a carbon copy? You wouldn’t be Robert Genn if you labeled yourself ADD. If we accept ourselves as we are, not as some psychological theory says we should be, we are fulfilling ourselves, not a label someone else has given us. Just think: If we artists didn’t have a “screw loose” we wouldn’t be artists!
Compare with genius
by Grace Cowling, Grimsby, Ontario, Canada
Medical research is a wonderful thing but it seems today that everything short of a hang nail needs a frightening name and letters to shorten it all up. While I read, enjoy and digest your letters I would challenge you to list the symptoms of the so-called ADD alongside the characteristics of genius and compare. Have a fine day. You certainly contribute to my Tuesdays and Fridays.
by Elsha Leventis
It’s good to remember that we live in an overly organized world, organized by the righteous and compulsively organized. Sometimes we’d all be happier and more successful if we slowed down, chucked our watches and lived and worked in the moment…
by Chrystos Minot
I don’t know if the word “Disorder” is the right one. Jean Houston coined the phrase “polyphrenia” to describe a high-functioning, multi-leveled consciousness that is well-organized and synergistic within its levels. At my best I am a community of awarenesses, each patiently (and urgently) waiting for its turn to express something. Kind of like the responses section in your website!
by David Brougham
My thanks for including Bonnie Mincu’s material. After much debate (with myself) I found that I could honestly say I could answer yes to 17 of the 24 typical ADD traits. It was a shock and it answered many of the questions about myself that I had lurking at the back of my mind for most of my life. I am 63 years old and have fought this all my life. I will pursue this further.
How I look forward to hearing from you! Only I must tell you that this morning there was a “major truth” discovered while here at my computer. Imagine! It has taken me 63 long years on a “know thyself” journey, to now discover a truly descriptive explanation of self–I have ADD. That’s it! Right in front of me. So, why have I wondered for so long without knowing it? Instead of blaming this, blaming that. Well, maybe not always blaming, but using the excuse of genes and other such things. So, now, I really have much to think about! Thank you for always providing some enlightenment.
Not a bad person
by Norma Hopkins, Bolton, Lancashire, UK
WOW, this is me now!!!! Add to this: dyslexia, especially with numbers, and it is even more me. I am not suspicious of authority, but I don’t read newspapers because I don’t trust them to report the truth. Please tell me, what is ’employing the day timer habit’? If I could get this right I think my husband would jump for joy. I could be home in time to cook the evening meal sometimes! The comment about the waste basket, does this mean that you allow a paper mountain to develop? I am not tactless though in fact, I am the very model of a tactful human being but ohhhh how lovely it is to know that all the other things like procrastination, good starter poor finisher, being untidy, taking on too much, etc., are not me just being a bad person! I am going to read Bonni Mincu’s paper tonight for sure.
(RG note) The Day Timer Habit is an almost religious connection to the calendar-organizers that people carry around. I think it’s good to have an expensive one — more commitment. Mine’s a “Day Runner.” Electronic would be good too but I think I might forget to have spare batteries. “Pileophobia” — Fear of running out of batteries. The body-wastebasket thing commits you to getting rid of unnecessary stuff as you move around.
by Carol Holt
Though I never went to a doctor to confirm I have ADD, my son does and it was when I experienced it with him I realized I had it to a degree also. I relate to most of your symptoms. I found the “cluttered environment” interesting… I can’t stand clutter so I need to have a clean and organized house before I can do anything else. When I worked in an office my desk had to be very neatly organized or I could not work. My boss, being the opposite always said I must not have enough work to do to have such a clean desk! I have gotten better over the years, relaxed a bit on this, but before I can “relax” and say paint or read… I have to pick up and clean some. It is like it clutters my mind if I don’t. And I hate to have to keep doing it over and over. I have to have it neat and organized before I paint. Even a messy palette bothers me, though I am learning to leave it a bit messy.
Had a show on it
by Elaine Sills, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Whooh, did I react when I saw your latest letter! I recently had an art show called ‘The Diversity of One’ to exemplify the multi-tracked mind of us ADDers. The second ‘focus’ of the show was to educate & raise awareness of both ADD & ADHD. Most important fact these days is to be aware of the human condition in North America particularly wherein we live lives full of hurry, stress, technological speed-ups, and flashing signals of same, every corner we turn. All our senses are bombarded with super-activity. The results create a society in which the majority of us walk around with most, at best, the symptoms of ADD, or at worst, ADHD. It is easy to see why so many people suspect they may be neurologically wired in this way, and how much more challenged are those who actually are. In discussion with 2 doctors who specialize in this field (one of whom is ADHD) I expressed concern about the misnomer for this syndrome & suggested changing it to a more positive one — Attention Enhanced Sensitivities — I was shot down with the response: “There is nothing positive about this problem, Elaine!” Ouch! However, this is the key to overcoming it or getting it into a healthy perspective. Glad you brought it up! I identify!
Organizes a newsletter, too
by Brownie Egan, Siesta Key, FL, USA
I was laughing and almost crying as I read the ADD letter. Women aren’t supposed to have ADD, but you describe both me and my brother totally. Interesting, however, that like you, I am able to organize and complete clerical tasks, items for a newsletter, new membership listings, etc., with little problem. It’s just that life is always in my way as a woman, particularly when I need unstructured time for creating art which involves thinking and planning time as well as time to execute the piece. Having pets that require much attention all day long isn’t helpful, and if I could only delegate, I have myself convinced I’d accomplish more, particularly in painting!!!!! Lucky for me, I have a work-oriented husband who is a slob by nature.
My favorite item was the wastebasket strapped to your waist!!! How true, cannot make a decision about all the materials I receive, although I swear the minute I toss something, that’s when I need it! And, I wonder, do ADD people have trouble making friends because we’re so enthusiastic about ALL our interests that we just plain scare others off?
(RG note) There’s something about the computer and it’s ability to store things flawlessly, and email, which has its own rules, that make such diversions as the twice-weekly letter such a pleasure to do. You too, eh? We wouldn’t do these sorts of things if they didn’t serve some sort of sense of order and connection in our lives.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 93 countries worldwide, including Afghanistan, have visited these pages since January 1, 2001.
That includes Raymond Simond who says “Robert, you should put a policeman at both corners of your mouth.”
And Lawrence Butigieg of Attard, Malta, who says, “I will not touch any paint unless all papers and books are transferred to their respective trays and shelves.”
And Betty Johnson who says “ADD is why we do so well in our art.”
And Sheryl Arnold who asks, “What the heck is creative metabolism?”
(RG note) It’s a term I use to describe how long individual artists take to go from project inspiration to project completion.
And also book winner Deborah Czernecky, (with a “z” in her name) who has “just returned from a 5-day painting trip with 16 other artists in the Highwater, Quebec area, not far from the Vermont border.”