Art, Literature, and Positive Neurotic Behavior

Theodore Carter

Stealing the Scream by Theodore CarterMy novel Stealing The Scream is about a reclusive, aspiring artist so obsessed with Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” that he researches it, recreates it over and over, steals it, and eventually devolves into madness. 

Around the time of the book’s release, I was working alone in my basement to create a life-size paper mache Scream sculpture and one hundred linocut prints for a local arts festival.

Once, my daughter visited me in the basement, stopped in the doorway, and stood wide-eyed at “The Scream” staring back at her and the dozens of linocuts laid out to dry on the floor, shelves, and counters. Looking at her face, I realized I’d become my main character. 

This wasn’t the first time this had happened. In 2017, I published “Frida Kahlo Sex Dreams” in the North American Review. The story is about a man whose compulsive thoughts about Frida Kahlo upset his everyday existence and his marriage.

Frida KahloThis piece was the title story of a collection released in 2019. To promote the book, I created “The Night of 1,000 Fridas,” a public art project spread across five continents with the goal of getting 1,000 depictions of Frida Kahlo out in the public on the same night. I created 20 Fridas, one of which was a life-size three dimensional paper mache rendering of “The Wounded Deer”. Leading up to the launch of the project, I didn’t sleep well, I forgot to eat sometimes, and it's possible I wasn’t always the best, most attentive husband. 

In 2016, finding it hard to sneak away from my kids for undisturbed writing time, I started making duck sculptures at the dining room table, while sitting on the couch, or while watching my kids play in the yard. 

Glass duckThis lead to #100DucksDC, a public art project featuring 100 light up ducks. It was a fun community event, but once my ducks were lined up on display, I saw my own particular brand of crazy laid bare across an open field. 

Sarah Wilson’s memoir about her battle with anxiety, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, introduced me to the term “positive neurotic behavior.” The idea is that sometimes we can do something born out of neurosis, but the net benefit is positive. An example given is a rigid swimming routine.

I like to think this is where I am (most of the time). Where I’ve had success, I attribute it to elbow grease. I work hard, and I’m pretty good at completing things. 

I like the hard work of writing and creating art. I like the feeling of falling into it. I think many writers and artists, maybe some of you, feel similarly. I’ve seen the same illogical drive in athletes. I admire this trait in others. I’m comforted by it. 

Still, when immersed in a project, I try to remind myself I’m not under deadline. No one is anxiously awaiting the next guerilla art project or short story. I do my best to slow down and ask is this particular obsession sustainable? If not, I seek out a more rational project, one that can be a conduit for positive neurotic behavior. 


Theodore Carter

Theodore Carter is the author of Stealing The ScreamFrida Sex Dreams and Other Unnerving Disruptions, and The Life Story of a Chilean Sea Blob and Other Matters of Importance. He’s twice appeared in The North American Review. In 2019, Carter organized the Night of 1,000 Fridas and helped make 1,000 pieces of Frida Kahlo-inspired art accessible to the public on the same night.