Monday, 14 October 2013

Writers and Depression

...Writers and Depression, go together like a horse and carriage. Apparently. Even if they don't rhyme very well.

Agatha Christie had it. Charles Dickens had it. So did Mark Twain, Will Self, David Foster Wallace and Evelyn Waugh. Sylvia Plath quite obviously had it. And that's just a few random names, off the top of my head.

And, if we're 'outing' members of The Sad Writers' Club here, I may as well add my own name to this list (even if that does make me look like I'm doing the literary equivalent of photobombing the Actually Properly Famous Writers' portrait session.) All of which is pretty compelling evidence that this a Real Thing.

But... does that make it a Necessary Thing?

Like the popular myth that famously drunk writers like Hemingway could not have been the writers they were without also being drunk (something I touched on in this previous post ) there is another popular mode of thinking that, for famously depressed writers, their depression was the source of their creativity - like some magical misery fountain that poured brilliance on some of their greatest works. Some even go so far as to claim that, had these writers been happy little rays of sunshine instead, many of their best works simply could not have been created.

Now, the myth of the drunk writer is pretty easy to disprove (as anyone who's ever sent a 2am text after ten Flaming Sambuca's will tell you - writer or non-writer.)  There are certain practical obstacles to writing when you're utterly wazzered, i.e. trying to hit the right keys on your keyboard when your dribbling face is in the way, for starters.

But the theories about writers with depression? Much harder to dismiss. Because, unlike drunkenness, many writers with depression are not only still able to physically write as competently while depressed as when they're not, but some even become more productive than usual while the Black Cloud is raining on their heads. Which is handy for them - albeit in a way that's less than ideal, obviously - but where does that leave those of us who aren't yet famous but often have to do battle with depression and other mental health issues? It leaves us with a big question, that's what: 'Will recovering from those mental health issues (and subsequently spending more of our lives that bit happier) also kill our creativity stone dead and leave us unable to write anything decent?'

This fear can be so real it even prevents some writers from getting help for their condition; medication might 'block my creative thoughts,' numbing the mental pain might 'stop me feeling anything anymore.' If you do happen to be one of those people who seems to churn out a ton of stuff when you're in the depths of depression compared to when you're not, that fear will seem even more justified. But, speaking as a writer who's also battled some pretty major mental health issues in the past, I'd like to offer some alternative theories.

My reasons for doing so are simple; I know how rotten depression feels, and I hate to think of other writers out there shunning help and continuing to endure that godawful rottenness just because they're worried it's the only way to hold onto their creativity.

If I look at my own past, and the minor successes I've had, it's tempting to believe that being mentally messed up seems to work a strange magic on my own creative mojo. For instance, I wrote the lyrics for a musical that was performed in Washington, Virginia - and received very good reviews - while I was an outpatient in a psychiatric hospital, recovering from a nervous breakdown.

But then I wrote the lyrics to another one which was also performed - and equally well-received - about a year after I'd recovered from that. Apart from the states of mind I was in when I wrote each of them, the other main difference between the two musicals was the weight of the subject matter - the 'mood' if you like. The one written while I was recovering from the breakdown was a retelling of the Cinderella story; it was a light, frothy comedy fairy tale. The second one, written when I'd recovered, told the story of the Russian tsar Peter The Great - a much darker, grittier tale altogether.

When I also took into consideration some of the short stories and plays I'd written that had been published or performed, I noticed a distinct pattern emerging. In the periods when I'd had mental health problems, the works that had done well were all light, whimsical comedy stuff - while all the works that had done well whilst I was well were much more serious and hard-hitting. It's pretty logical when I think about it; writing dark, heavy stuff when feeling emotionally shitty wouldn't do me any favours at all - I'd need to be able to pull myself out of it afterwards, and I could only do that if I wasn't ill. On the other hand, when I'm in the doldrums of depression, it makes sense that I'd prefer to write things to make people laugh and cheer them up (me included.)

So may be that's a more encouraging answer to the conundrum; it's not how much writers who battle depression write, but rather what they write about depending on whether they're currently on the Light or the Dark Side.

If you too are one of those writers, it may be worth looking at your own work to see if there are patterns depending on your own moods - so that you can work with them and keep your writing flowing no matter how low (or high) you feel. It's got to be better than beating yourself up for being 'unproductive' or 'only productive when you're miserable.'

And if things are really bad, and you know in your heart that taking medication or having some kind of therapy would make your life more bearable - happier, even - then for god's sake go and get it. A writer's life is one of suffering, yes - just ripping those words out of your brain and smooshing them onto the page can be torture in itself sometimes - but that's not the whole of your life. And for the parts of your life that aren't to do with writing - i.e. the rest of it - you deserve to be happy. Yes you do.

You can't write if just simply living is hard for you. In fact, if you are emotionally dragging yourself along the floor on your face day after day right now then screw writing - screw it until you fix that shit.

Live first, write second. You deserve it, and so do all the people who care about you.


  1. This is a very honest and insightful post. Thank you for sharing. Yes, there is a strong correlation between depression--between mental challenges broadly--and creativity. I'm actually formulating a blog post on that now, but don't have my thoughts organized sufficiently to write it yet. My personal experience as a nonfiction writer is that when I emerge from a depression I have insights and material that can improve my creative writing. However, when in the depression I am crippled. I can no more write sparkling prose when in that state than an Olympic hurdler could compete with two broken legs. We are all different, of course; Van Gogh did some of his best work when depressed. Perhaps the most important lesson is to understand how we operate ourselves creatively, and be easy on ourselves when the inspiration isn't there.

  2. Absolutely - and thank you, too, for your honest and insightful reply. Depression and all things related to it can be like trying to find your way through a long, dark tunnel without knowing where the light switches are - but when you get to the other side it's very often the case that perspectives have changed somewhere along the journey without even knowing. I've met people who, like you, are unable to write while in the grip of depression, and others who insist they can ONLY write when they're in that state of mind. It's the latter who always seemed to me to be putting themselves through the most pain, because it was almost as if they saw being happy as some kind of curse upon their creativity, to be avoided if they wanted to 'get anywhere' with their writing ambitions.

    Depression and mental illness in general is still stigmatised so much, both in society and by the media - although some areas of the latter are trying to redress that balance now. I think we still have a long way to go though.