This blog post was originally scheduled to run last week, on Aug. 13. But following Robin Williams’ suicide on Aug. 11, I asked that the post be delayed so that I could reframe my thoughts in light of the national conversation occurring in the wake of this loss. Nothing I say will provide new solutions or special insight. But I do beleive that we have a responsibility to refuse to stop talking about depression. One in ten Americans suffers from depression. But in creative fields the percentage sky-rockets. We do artists a diservice when we write off their work as a product of mental illness. Furthermore, we perpetuate a culture that views creativity as a mentally harmful activity. In fact, study after study shows that art makes us happier, healthier, more empathetic people. If you’re struggling, seek help. Being healthy will not kill your creativity. Only giving up on your art can do that.
In a recent article for The Atlantic, neuro-scientist Nancy Andreason discusses the links between mental instability, intelligence, and creativity (link below). She traces the idea of the "mad genius" from Aristotle to modern efforts to elucidate creativity as a trait.
Studies indicate that persons with high levels of creativity (as measured by a variety of metrics) are much more likely to have a history of mental illness and addiction in their family. They themselves are also more likely to have a history of mental disorder.
Creativity is a fine line to walk. We so deeply link the demon of dysfunction with the angel of creativity that we come to think of them as one and the same.
I remember trying desperately, futilely to explain to my college Modernism class that Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Wolfe didn't write from their depression.
They couldn't have.
Depressed people don't function well enough to organize and write a novel, let alone to edit and rigorously rewrite.
They wrote in spite of their illness, not because of it. They wrote when they were relatively healthy, when they were functional. This is evident in Wolfe’s suicide note when she writes, “I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. (...) You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read.”
To paraphrase Sylvia Plath, when you’re depressed you have no time for anything but being depressed.
To my anger and frustration I've seen gifted artists and writers use the Dysfunction of the Greats as a justification for their overindulgence in unhealthy behavior. It's the shortcut past the hard work and long hours. The floodgate through which will pour your own inner Hemingway.
Drink, drug, and self-destruct. For it proves you're a genius.
As Stephen King notes in On Writing, "The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are intertwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time."
In her TED talk, author Elizabeth Gilbert notes that artists tend to self-destruct. Then she asks, “Are you guys all cool with that?”
It's important that we talk about the mental health of our artists, writers, and musicians. It's important that we acknowledge that great work comes from great labor, and that madness and addiction are not pathways to genius. They are merely unfortunate chemical by-products of similar neural processes.
It's important for two reasons: First, so that we can stop giving our creative young people the idea that unhealthy behavior will make them more creative. Second, so we can treat creativity as a necessary activity for a healthy mind.
My mother is depressive. As any child of someone with mental illness can tell you, it wreaks havoc on childhood. Depression was the ghost in our home. The blackness that shadowed every aspect of life.
Her's was not the lingering malaise of existential dissatisfaction. Her depression crippled her. She spent months in bed. The tiniest decisions overwhelmed her. When you spoke to her, whether seeking joy or comfort, you never knew if you would get the fun, creative mother you loved, or the huge, seeping sadness that lurked just under the surface.
It was impossible to understand and make sense of at 6-years-old. And at 10. And at 13. But when I was 14, I discovered someone who helped me understand. Someone Andreason used as a case study on the link between creativity and mental illness. Kurt Vonnegut.
In Breakfast of Champions (a book Vonnegut considered his worst), he discusses the suicide of his mother.
Mental illness is a theme throughout his work. One he approaches with an empathy, humor, and humanity that is, true to Vonnegut form, touchingly irreverent.
His family, like mine, is rife with depression, addiction, bad relationships, suicide, and eating and anxiety disorders.
My mother's disease occurred at a time before depression was a common topic.
Socially, her depression was perceived as an implicit failure on her part to live up to the expectation of perfection that her religion demanded.
Her children, house, clothes, body, and marriage were imperfect. So she simply gave up fighting her illness.
To read Vonnegut state of his own mother that she committed suicide out of embarrassment, is a truth so profound and terrible, that one can only laugh out loud in horror.
It took the first 26 years of my life for me to figure out that genetically and behaviorally, my auto-setting is self-destruct. The genes I inherited and the behaviors I learned in childhood are a recipe for becoming imprisoned in the same disease that decimated my mother.
I have to actively and consciously choose healthy habits. I have to override the behaviors I learned and the genes I was assigned.
I have to unlearn my earliest formed habits. My relationships to food, sleep, sex, exercise, religion, television, and family. Some days this is easy. Some days it's not.
But I choose to demonstrate healthy behaviors to my children. And one of those healthy habits is creativity. Specifically writing.
Writing is cheap therapy. Writing is working through your shit. The shit you don't want to deal with. That's what Vonnegut taught me. It's a way to call out your inner crazy.
To write is to stomp through your swampy Jungian underworld in hip-waders and see what kinds of demons you can shake from the trees.
It may not be pretty or nice. But it is necessary work.
Because, as with so many demons, they only begin to dissipate when they are named.
To know what it is, to drag it into the light, to hang Grendel's arm from the rafters of the world and cry, “Here! Here's what's been stalking me!” is to set the world in perspective.
We must shift our understanding. We must see creativity, not as a symptom of a disease, but as a tool to help control it. A coping mechanism. A meaning that transcends the storminess of an unsettled mind. So we can nurture our artists amid their flights of fancy, and draw them back from the alluring precipice of self-destruction.
Jessica Ramsey Golden’s poetry has appeared in such journals as The William and Mary Review, Orbis International, Calyx, and Cirque. In 2006 she was awarded the Eleanor B. North Poetry Prize. In 2009, she received an Individual Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation. In 2011, she began writing fiction. She is currently drafting a science fiction project, while seeking representation for her literary Gothic novel, The Hidden Door.