Creativity and Caregiving


Last week a theme emerged in two blog entries featuring loft veterans:

In an excerpt from her memoir, pianist Jane Getz reflected on the mid-1960s and Charles Mingus, whose wife was a nurse:  “In those days there were quite a few musicians married to nurses.  I wondered what significance this had; did all these Big Dogs need around the clock care?”

In an interview with me, saxophonist Wendell Harrison compared Thelonious Monk to drummer Edgar Bateman:  “…sometimes the people who are the most creative need the most help.  Monk had the Baroness and his wife…I don’t think Edgar ever had that kind of support.”

Gene Smith’s first wife Carmen Martinez Smith was trained as a pediatric nurse.  His mother Nettie Caplinger Smith lived with him and his family well into his thirties.  She paid his bills and assisted in many other ways. Thelonious Monk lived with his mother, Barbara Batts Monk, into his mid-thirties and she cared for him to no end.  Smith also had a devoted live-in housekeeper whose daughter grew up to be a social worker.  There are many others who wandered into his life and took care of him in various ways.

Kay Redfield Jamison‘s work at Johns Hopkins relating bipolar disorder and mental illness to creativity is convincing to me.  Smith’s characteristics and habits make him a textbook case.  Robin D.G. Kelley’s recent biography of Monk describes him similarly.

Wendell added another layer to the difficulty:  The greatest creators don’t just need domestic or medical help; they often need bureaucratic leaders who understand, encourage, and enable their gifts, and sometimes they never get that.  The most creative people are, by definition, constantly challenging standards and expectations and that’s often discomforting for others.  Here’s what Wendell said in reference to Edgar Bateman: “You see, in order to make it big you have to have the right politics and your politics have to jibe with your music.  Somebody has got to like what you are doing (my emphasis).  It’s just the way it is.  Edgar never had that.  He was as good as Elvin Jones, but he never had Coltrane like Elvin did.  He was as good as Tony Williams, but he never had Miles like Tony did.”

This seems universal to me, applicable to just about any field or profession or industry or way of life.  Some people such as Hall Overton seem to care not one iota for promotion and affirmation; for others it’s their motivation, their “Rosebud” (Overton died at age 52 of cirrhosis, so maybe alcohol was his self-care).

Like a nineteenth century Romantic, the theme of care giving shows up all over Smith’s work throughout his career:  a soldier holding an infant on the front lines of WWII, “Country Doctor,” “Nurse Midwife,” Schweitzer, a mental hospital in Haiti, a diseased community in Minamata.  There are also loft tapes with late night talk radio shows about health care, and much more.

There is another sort of connection between creativity and care giving that intrigues me:  Both come from impulses that, in their natural senses, you don’t turn off.  A natural caregiver doesn’t leave the hospital or clinic at the end of the day and stop being a caregiver.  It may explain why in mid-century studies of drug addictions, physicians were up there with artists in terms of frequency of addictions.  Many caregivers must improvise daily, be ready for anything, any patient, any flare-up, any mysterious malady.

My next institutional project, after my Smith biography, might be a national oral history project on primary caregivers – doctors, nurses, midwives – over the age of seventy-five.  They’ll be from all walks of life, from all corners of the map.  They’ll share a half-century of primary care giving.  Their point of view seems missing from the current health care debate.  In today’s brutal, paradoxical health care industry, a natural caregiver seems likely to either shun the profession and provide care on a private, volunteer basis (like Monk’s mother) or to be so stifled and demoralized by the industry they can’t do what their impulses tell them.

-Sam Stephenson


  1. ron free Said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 11:03 pm

    good piece, sam, as always.

    and incidentally i consider you to be a caregiver in your on right. i know for a fact that you have encouraged and nurtured many creative types along the way, myself included. you have brought many blessings to my life. so much so that i have often described you to my friends as a gift that keeps on giving.

    thanks man.

  2. admin Said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 9:23 pm

    Ron, thanks for your kind words. Sometimes the helper helps himself. I’ve gained way more than I’ve given. The great reward of this project has been the privilege of meeting all the people. I’m still coming to terms with what it all means. I feel there is something primal and profound about listening to people as they tell their stories. That element of listening and paying attention is under-appreciated in our culture today, it seems to me. One thing I’ve learned is that the people who are most insistent that they have nothing important to share are in fact the ones have the best stories.