A Quick Word On Depression and Creative Success

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It’s my turn to be the troublemaker.  Fancy that.  It’s not trouble I’m trying for though; rather I seek to clarify a point.   You see, in the last week, I’ve read a couple of beautifully written articles concerning writing and depression/mental illness.  I really liked the articles and they make great points.  In fact, I would go so far as to say they were downright inspiring.  You can read them yourself here:

http://therumpus.net/2010/11/dont-get-me-down-reading-and-writing-depression/

and here:

http://cityoftongues.com/writing/never-real-and-always-true/

As both articles deal with writing and depression, it’s a quick leap to presume that the two things are, by necessity, linked.  However, there is one key point that I took from these articles: it is not necessary to suffer from a mental illness in order to be a successful writer (as this is not an academic paper, I’m not going to haggle over a definition for success).  I would extend this point by saying you don’t need to have overcome it to be a good writer and you most certainly ought not continue to suffer with it, in order to write.

If any kind of mental illness were required in order to succeed as a writer, I would concede failure immediately.  Much as I love it, I would give up writing forthwith.  I have lived around people with anxiety and depressive illnesses most of my life.  It’s awful and I don’t want it, any of it, no matter what Faustian bargain might be offered.

There are lots of things required to become a writer; but these things are never the same from person to person.  The blend is always different, the life experiences, the observational skills, the humour, the intellectual acuity, the emotional intelligence, even the very reason for writing.  All these things change from one writer to the next and that is why, as readers, we never tire of reading.  The story is never the same.  Give two writers the same topic, even the same characters, in fact confine them as much as you like, and the stories they produce will be different.  Because ultimately, we (both the writer and the reader) are as prisms through which white light is shone. It’s the shape of us and all our varied imperfections that generates the resultant rainbow.

So where did this conflation of creativity and mental illness begin, and did the mental illness inspire the creativity or vice versa?  Why must art always equal suffering? I love Elizabeth Gilbert’s explanation for this because it works in both directions.  I love that she talks about how truly, heart wrenchingly wondrous it feels to know your genius is in the room with you.  Myself, I have been known to make a phone call while still sobbing happy tears,  to say something like, “I’ve done it.  It’s beautiful.  Christ I love it when they surprise me.”  Fortunately, most of my support crew know what’s going on.

As awe-inspiring as that sensation is, it is equally opposite when it ebbs.  Again, speaking for myself, that’s why I keep writing.  I’m addicted to my muse.  I’m like the lovelorn teenager hanging around in front of my crush’s house just hoping for a glimpse.  Even when I feel completely uninspired, I look for her.  When she’s not around, I mourn.  Then, like the pathetic muse-junkie I am, when she touches me, I light up.  I’m all sparkles and wonder for that brief, perfect moment. It’s a game we play, my muse and I.  We both know the rules and I play anyway.

If you ask my mother, she’ll tell you I’ve always been this way.  That doesn’t make me bipolar, manic, anxious or depressed.  I know what those things look like, I’ve seen how they make people feel and they’re not me.  So what am I?

I am eternally hopeful; my husband says ‘naive’.  I’m optimistic in everything (how else would I survive rejection letters?). I’m also persistent, patient, dogged, and stand forever in awe of the universe.  These are the tools with which I write…somewhat successfully.

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2 responses »

  1. Depression may not necessarily make you a good writer – I rather believe it’s a sign of a delicate nature, and that’s why it accompanies most of the writers in this form or another.

    • Hi Anton, good to see you! I think the ‘delicacy’ to which you refer, is probably what I described as standing in ‘awe of the universe’. I feel small and finite yet at the same time know I’m made of the same stuff as stars (the ones in the sky, not the ones in the paper). It’s that perception of magic that I think makes for good writers (although journalists are made of different stuff altogether). And truly, delicacy will only get you so far. Somewhere in them, an author has to find the ability to be critiqued (sometimes downright bagged), they have to read rejection letters and still not quit. Much like the universe, they must be resilient enough to persist.

      Also, I think that (like ‘success) depression is a word that’s misused. The kind of awe in the universe I feel (the one that’ll have me crying over dandelions) is not, as a matter of course, depression, just as sadness and unhappiness are not depression. So while most authors live as supersensitive beings, being depressed will not help them as writers. In fact, even though I’m not a doctor, I’d go so far as to say that deliberately leaving depression untreated for fear that one will not be able to write, is utterly diabolical.

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