Being a Writer with Depression

by krstaten

There’s a common understanding that creativity and mental illness go hand in hand. Everyone from Van Gogh to Hemingway (and many, many others) has fallen into this category, to the point where we almost feel like the two things are normal–or at least inseparable. We sometimes doubt whether the art of these great inspirations would have happened if they had been happy.

The idea seems to be that mental illnesses such as depression are what motivate artists and writers, what give us fuel for what we do; that it is, in fact, the mental illness that makes us creative.

While many writers do use their mental illness in their writing, the above could not be further from the truth. I’ve written before about how false the idea of creating art from pain can be. More often than not, mental illness–and in my experience, depression in particular–is a hindrance to writing, for a few reasons:

1. It keeps you from feeling motivated.

Sure, you might be able to churn out a piece once in a while, when everything gets built up and you have to let it out somehow. Or maybe you churn out a lot of work, but sometimes it’s out of a sense of obligation, a feeling that you have to or you won’t be able to handle what’s going on inside.

I have never known a writer, artist, or musician with depression who feels that their illness fuels their passion in a positive way, and for many people, pursuing a passion becomes difficult and painful. What you’re left with is a mind that is both cluttered and sluggish, and a resentment toward yourself for being unable to produce what you should be able to.

2. It keeps you from feeling satisfied with your work.

One of the best things about creative output is the sense of accomplishment when you create something you’re proud of. The problem with depression is that it often hinders you from feeling that sense of accomplishment. This goes hand in hand with the above idea that often the output is less driven by motivation or ambition and more by a sense of obligation.

You HAVE to make this thing. Either because you’re supposed to despite the fact that Depression doesn’t want to, or because even if you don’t want to you know if you don’t Depression will hurt you more. Pride rarely comes hand in hand with it; it’s merely an ugly thing you had to give birth to so it didn’t eat you from the inside. And once it’s out in the world, you often still only see it as ugly.

3. You get burnt out.

Some people can work through this because they’ve got to get that shadow out of them somehow, and so the exhaustion doesn’t slow the output. But nonetheless many writers will feel exhausted. Take National Poetry Writing Month, for example–I completed it, and I’m proud.

But writing a poem a day for 30 days took so much out of me that I didn’t write again for 12 days afterwards. Nothing. No creative output. Not a blog, not a poem, not even a private journal entry. Not only did I not write, I didn’t really do much of anything else. It took me two weeks to regain the energy that creative output drained me of, even when that creative output felt necessary to purge some demon or another from myself.

The bottom line is that art is work. Art is effort, and exhaustion, and yes, beauty and reward too–but mental illness is also draining, and makes it hard to feel the positive emotions that should come from creating art.

I’ve heard people ask, would Van Gogh have put out less work if he was happy? Maybe. Maybe he wouldn’t have felt as compelled to create without having demons to exorcise. Or maybe he would have felt more inclined to create. Maybe he would have had more energy, more oomph, to keep putting even more beauty into the world.

And that’s the upside to all of this–that depression may or may not hinder art, but it is certainly not necessary to make it.

I’ve heard so many people express a fear that without their mental illness, they would not be artists. Mental illness is not the inspiration of art. It is not the thing that makes a person creative. Depression is not, contrary to popular belief, a gift of creativity. It is a very heavy burden, and one that makes passion hard to pursue.

Artists have every right to aspire to happiness. That should be encouraged more than “making art out of pain.” Because when the pain is gone, the art can still be there. It will just be different. But sometimes the pain is what keeps the art from happening.