The Big Idea: Heather Webb
Author Heather Webb knows what people think of creative folks, and their overall mental fitness. But as with nearly everything, there’s more to the story — literally — than common perception. Webb explains why and how her exploration of the theme influenced her novel Rodin’s Lover.
Aren’t all creatives a little bit “mad”? This is what many of us assume from centuries of stereotypes and tales of artists and writers doing nutty things. Where is the line drawn between fervor, obsession, and madness—and who decides? Several studies have been conducted to explain the creative’s so-called high proclivity for mental illness. As expected, it’s a difficult tendency to measure, and there aren’t any real answers.
Perhaps artists are “special” or gifted and see the world without filters, with a fine lens that is a constant stimulus to the brain.
Perhaps artists use their gifts as a coping mechanism, a means to expel that which torments them.
Perhaps only a fraction of artists are truly mentally ill, and must overcome their limitations to create because of some inner need, some drive to capture their inspirations.
Or maybe it’s a bunch of hog wash because we’re all a little bit mad.
This is one of the Big Ideas I tackled in my new novel, Rodin’s Lover. My protagonist, Camille Claudel, is the collaborator, student, and lover to the famed Auguste Rodin. (For those of you who don’t know anything about him, he sculpted The Thinker, The Gates of Hell, and dozens of other ground-breaking works during the 1880s.)
Not only was Camille as brilliant as Rodin, but she made waves in the art world with her sensual pieces—women didn’t sculpt from nude models and they certainly didn’t create portraits of naked men and women dancing! (See The Waltz by Claudel, my absolute fav) The ups and downs of garnering reviews and commissions, her kooky family, and her tumultuous love affair with Rodin prompted her mental unraveling. So here we have it—a classic story of an artist going mad. Or is it?
How did I go about this sticky, yet compelling topic?
I peeled back layers of my characters’ psyches to expose their deepest desires. Next, I heightened their motivations by accessing their emotional lenses—the way they viewed their world around them in relation to their pains, hopes, desires. During my revisions, something “crazy” happened. Each character revealed their own bent of madness.
Rodin was driven to create and could think of little else…until he met Camille. Her passion for sculpture flamed his own, and soon, his feelings for her eclipsed his reasoning. What could be a stronger force than love to drive us to distraction? Paul Claudel, (Camille’s playwright brother) found God, and his zeal turned caustic, condemning, and downright punishing. Camille’s senses became heightened, she lashed out irrationally in fits of rage, then inner voices begin to torment her…
Do their unstable moments, their passions and inner demons, make them crazy?
The bigger question is, does it matter? Their obsessions don’t detract from the beauty they’ve created and left behind. I, for one, and thankful for whatever muse inspired them to such masterpieces…But then I’m a writer with my own obsessions. Perhaps you should be the judge.