Nancy C. Andreasen was teaching English at the University of Iowa in the mid-1960s when she first met the man who would become a literary legend, a longtime friend and just the sort of creative type she would study in her later years as a neuroscientist.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who died April 11 in New York after suffering brain injuries in a fall, was on the faculty of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the university at the time. Soon after, his novel Cat’s Cradle became a best-seller and he started working on what would become a modern classic, Slaughterhouse-Five.
Andreasen and Vonnegut remained friends, talking and corresponding on and off through the years. They share the same birthday, Nov. 11, and he sometimes sent birthday cards. He also wrote a book-jacket blurb for Andreasen’s The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius, which includes the results of her research into the behavior, brain images and family histories of many writers and other artists.
“He’s an incredibly humble, very sweet, gentle, concerned, caring human being,” Andreasen said the day after his death was reported. His highly original work has influenced generations of modern and post-modern American writers, thinkers and readers—Norman Mailer called him “our own Mark Twain.”
But in his originality, Vonnegut also can be seen as one of a group: highly creative people. Andreasen’s work with such groups suggests that creativity may be inherited and is sometimes associated with mental disorders, though neither is necessary. Vonnegut had both.
“He matched the pattern of having significant mood disorder,” she said. Vonnegut had depression at times throughout his life, and in 1984 he attempted suicide. He would later joke about how he botched the job. His written work seemed to follow his mood. “I would say the general pattern, for him and for most creative people, is they are not very productive when they’re depressed,” said Andreasen, a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. “They do most of their creating after they’ve emerged from feeling depressed.”
“Something that I find very interesting is the fact that people who write with a comic face, who write with humor, have behind that a very deep bedrock of sadness. And that was certainly the case with him,” she said. “But, in a sense, he overcame the sadness, to write.”
The mood-mind connection is fairly well-known, but perhaps less noticed is how extraordinary creativity, expressed in a variety of ways, seems to run in families. “Everybody knows him as a famous, creative writer,” she said. But within his family, he had an older relative, a scientist and inventor, who developed a technique for seeding clouds so they would produce more rain. His brother was a physicist, she said. “His children are creative: a daughter is an artist, a son who is now a pediatrician also wrote a very successful novel.”
And neither they nor he limited themselves to one creative outlet. Vonnegut sketched and published artwork, as well as writing fiction, memoir and other nonfiction: “I have a bunch of letters with sketches on them that he sent me and poems that he wrote,” Andreasen said. And he followed and commented on economics, politics as well as science and the natural world, she recalled.
People who express extraordinary creativity also often approach life and the world with fresh eyes, they are very curious about things and they have multiple interests, according to Andreasen. “People who are very creative are curious and prone to push the limits—prone to get in trouble sometimes and be criticized for pushing the limits. He is a real exemplar of a highly creative person.”
The most fundamental characteristic of creativity is the ability to perceive novel ideas or relationships and create things that are novel or unique. “Vonnegut was creative in the arts, but people who are creative in the sciences, I believe, operate out of that same kind of cognitive style.” Her current research is on that very topic, comparing how scientists think to how artists and others think.
A little ‘crush’
Vonnegut also seemed to have a soft spot for the literature professor turned scientist in Iowa, who calls him “just as sweet a man as you’d ever meet.”
“When he was doing the blurb for my book, he wrote a series of different ones, and he kept revising them. The first one was, 'This magnificent book is written by a woman with whom I had a love affair many years ago.' We didn’t have a love affair, of course. But his letters to me suggest that he did have a bit of a ‘crush’ on me. It is really kind of cute. My husband has read them and said, ‘You could have married Kurt Vonnegut.’ ”
The blurb eventually published for Andreasen’s book reads: “Our leading authority on creativity reveals herself with this splendid book as one of the most valuably creative persons of our time. – Kurt Vonnegut”
“When I heard that he had died I was just really sad,” Andreasen said. “I miss him.”