Ivan Pope is a writer, artist and long-distance cyclist who lives in Brighton. He originally graduated from Goldsmiths College Fine Art BA. He was involved with a number of early internet developments in the UK and across the world. He invented the cybercafe at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts and founded the world’s first web magazine, The World Wide Web Newsletter. He has taught at art colleges in London, Newport and Brighton. He is now a writer of fiction and psychogeographic non-fiction. He is currently undertaking a PhD in creative non-fiction at Plymouth University.
I have spent most of my life in creative pursuits, drifting from one thing to another without ever clearly understanding what I was doing. I certainly never had a plan, much less a career and, although I had some notable successes along the way, and am not unhappy with my life, I always felt something was wrong. I just couldn’t put my finger on it.
The revelation of attention-deficit to me was a classic epiphany. I was trying to work out some issues that we had with our son who, although a very intelligent boy, seemed incapable of working at university and had just extricated himself from Oxford in the most painful and seemingly pointless fashion. Someone suggested ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), the full name of this syndrome. I was both dismissive and uninterested, believing at that point that ADHD was a term applied only to annoying children who would not sit still. Nevertheless, I went to Google and searched the term. Immediately I came across a list of ADHD attributes and these brought me up so sharply that my life changed in that instant. I was fifty-seven and, while I wouldn’t say my life had been a disaster, I seemed to have always stood on the edge of normality. ‘That’s my life, I thought.’ I was alone but I may even have spoken out loud. It became as obvious as it could be: almost every way that ADHD was said to manifest was familiar to me. In that instant, I understood myself better than I had ever done.
Since then I have come to see attention deficit as both the driver of creativity and the author of my strange unfocused life. I have not been formally diagnosed, I am self-diagnosed. I have read a lot about it and also, more importantly, listened in to a growing community online who discuss, challenge and inform each other about how attention deficit works in their lives. This syndrome seems to explain a lot about the strangenesses of our lives: why are we like this and also like that. It is a strange and shape-shifting disorder which is comorbid with a range of other neurodiversities and some even more strange issues like hypermobility and digestive issues.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is not named well. It’s not really about hyperactivity (although to be fair, there is a hyperactive version, and it is said that for many of us, the hyperactivity is internal). It’s not even really a disorder. It seems to be more of an attention surfeit, we pay too much attention to too many things. It also creates a strange relationship with time. I’ve known these attributes my whole life, but I never considered them strange. I assumed everyone had them to some degree and that my creativity, my way with ideas, was just something I was a bit better at. Then I found ADHD and suddenly I could see myself in operation, I could anticipate how I might react and understand what I was doing, and why I was doing it. This ‘disorder’ (as I don’t like to call it) is well scientifically and medically documented, but still hard to put into words. The notion that it is about an inability to sit still is nonsense in most of us, though the hyperactivity may be considered to be internal, a driver of our restless lives. We have huge issues with procrastination, an inability to get started, and then we have hyperfocus, the ability to spend hours in a different world, undertaking a single task.
I started looking, as I so often did, at art and literature for answers. In her book Flights, the Nobel author, Olga Tokarczuk, describes a condition that she calls Lazy Venus syndrome Although she never uses the term attention deficit, she describes someone with ADHD perfectly and beautifully.
“The result of this situation is that I have, as I see it, Lazy Venus syndrome. In this case, we’re dealing with a Person whose fortune has gifted generously, but who has entirely failed to use their potential. Such people are bright and intelligent, but don’t apply themselves to their studies, and use their intelligence to play card games or patience instead.
This … induces a strange kind of laziness – lifetime opportunities are missed because you overslept because you didn’t feel like going, because you were late because you were neglectful. It’s a tendency to be sybaritic, to live in a state of mild consciousness, to fritter your life away on petty pleasures, to dislike effort and be devoid of any penchant for competition. Long mornings, unopened letters, things put off for later, abandoned projects. A dislike of any authority and a refusal to submit to it, going your own way in a taciturn idle manner.”
It is interesting to compare Tokarczuk’s description with a more conventional list of attributes of ADHD:
- Easily bored, Gets frustrated, Anxious
- Does not meet goals, Easily distracted, Searches for stimulation,
- Sense of underachievement, Restive
- Disorganised, Can’t get started (Time blindness)
- Resistance to authority, Impulsive, Doesn’t follow procedure
- Impatient, Procrastinates, Lots of hobbies
- Called dreamy. Hyperfocuses.
- Has an aversion to paperwork
People I talk to, especially artists, often recognise this sort of language because it has been applied to you. Indeed, it reads like my own school reports. They (and my mother) constantly told me I lived in a dream world ‘to live in a state of mild-consciousness’. We are often categorised as lazy ‘a strange kind of laziness’ despite being intelligent and highly creative. We tend not to finish things, getting distracted or starting something new. We tend to be impulsive, getting into trouble and resisting authority in different ways, ‘A dislike of any authority and a refusal to submit to it’. People with ADHD will often ask themselves how they can be lazy when they spend so much time being busy, starting and getting on with multiple interests ‘abandoned projects’. We tend to have a dislike of paperwork ‘unopened letters, things put off for later’. ADHD can drive fierce creativity but it can also ensure that creativity never finds lasting expression.
In his book Adult ADHD: How to succeed as a Hunter in a Farmer’s world, Thom Hartmann says that the forgetfulness, disorganisation, impulsivity and boredom that ADHD brings can be as constructive as they can be destructive. To be fair, attention deficit can be hugely destructive and far more intense than I have experienced. It is a formal medical condition that can ruin lives and there is a lot of disagreement currently (especially in the US) about over-diagnosis and medicalisation. My interest is not in the medical side or in the politics of this, but in understanding how or whether attention deficit relates to creativity. In this, I mean all forms of creativity, the ability to come up with new ideas, to execute creative work within any field. It is clear that this is an ability that not everyone has – not everyone wants it – again, creativity could be seen as a curse as in the Chinese saying, May you live in interesting times. There is a double edgeness to creativity, an understanding that true artists stand close to some edge, that they may pay heavily for their talent – and not everyone wants that.
I have become fascinated by the double-edged sword of this syndrome which gives great creativity through the restless search for stimulation while undermining it repeatedly with distraction. Impulsivity is important for creativity, as is a resistance to a normal way of doing things, and a willingness to experiment, but finding disorganisation and frustration will often destroy what has been started. I used to fear that my creativity would leave me, while at the same time having no understanding of what drove it. Now I can look at myself and my behaviour and see what I am doing. I haven’t changed in how I operate in life, but I am more at ease with why I am as I am. When I was an entrepreneur, my advisors would demand consistency – and consistency is the exact opposite of attention deficit. I even came up with a phrase to refute them: consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative. Now, with my new knowledge, I look back at that time and that attitude and understand that I precisely understood my way of being in the world even when I had no way of thinking about it. Now I do.
If you have read this far and are now thinking what I describe is just the description of normal people, of a certain creative type, or of human behaviour, then consider that maybe you are looking at the world from within attention deficit, that you yourself have Tokarczuk’s Lazy Venus syndrome. Welcome to the club.