by Diana Raab
“Remember sadness is always temporary. This, too, shall pass.” -Chuck T. Falcon
It has been said that creative persons, such as authors, artists, actors, musicians, performers and poets are more often plagued with the demon of depression than the general population. One of the possible explanations for this is that creative types tend to feel powerful emotions which aid their creative endeavors. In other words, some experts believe that being sensitive to one’s surroundings, including sounds, colors and people’s emotions, has been associated with both creativity and depression. Such hypersensitivity can lead people to worry about things with which other people aren’t typically as concerned, thereby increasing the potential for depression.
If we examine the lives of accomplished artists, we will observe that many battled depression at some point in their lives. A few prominent examples are Vincent Van Gogh, Charles Darwin, Virginia Woolf, William Styron, Anne Sexton, Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath. If you’ve ever been depressed, you probably understand the sense of helplessness and numbness which accompanies this illness. Sometimes this sense of helplessness drives creative individuals to the drawing or writing pad, but other times, it can be immobilizing.
The life of writer David Foster Wallace offers a more recent example, as he committed suicide secondary to depression. Experts have identified certain characteristics in his writing—such as hypersensitivity, constant rumination, and persistent contemplation—which researchers say can connect creativity with mental illness, especially bipolar disorder and depression. In this case, mental illness does not necessarily cause creativity, but a certain ruminating personality type may contribute to both mental health issues and artistic ability.
Some Theories Linking Depression and Creativity
First, some artists and writers admit to engaging in their craft as a kind of self-therapy for depression. In this way, their efforts to avoid depression may provide an incentive for their creative work that wards off melancholy.
Second, the experience of depression provides subject matter for artistic creations: Edvard Munch’s famous painting “The Scream” and Emily Dickinson’s poem “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” are two examples.
Third, some believe that one cannot truly comprehend or convey the human condition unless one has experienced the highest emotional highs and the lowest lows. Thus, depression provides the existential angst from which great art arises.
Approximately seven percent of the general population is affected by depression or bipolar disorder, and studies have shown that this number tends to be higher among creative types. Bipolar disorder is characterized by episodes of mania and major depression. Typically, someone who is manic depressive tends to swing from excessive highs (mania) to profound hopelessness (depression). In between these episodes, they experience feelings of normalcy. Some people can also have mixed symptoms of both mania and depression simultaneously, while others may have manic symptoms that are more moderate.
In his book “Van Gogh Blues,” Eric Maisel proclaims that virtually one hundred percent of creative people suffer from episodes of depression. He supports this claim by asserting that every creative person came out of the womb ready to interrogate life and determine for herself what life would mean, could mean, and should mean. He believes that depression in creative individuals is thought of as a crisis caused by chronic, persistent uneasiness, irritation, anger, and sadness about the facts of existence and life’s apparent lack of meaning. In fact, those who try to understand the reason for their own existence will most likely be more prone to depression.
Kay Redfield Jamison, a foremost expert on bipolar disorder who has also suffered from the disease since childhood, believes that most artistic geniuses are manic depressive. Jamison is the author of “Touched with Fire” and a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Her book makes a powerful link between depression and creativity.
When a writer is depressed, he or she may turn to their craft to ease the pain. The writing process can help the creative person make sense of their lives and validate what they are feeling. Writing brings us face-to-face with reality. The act of moving the pen across the page or the fingers on the keyboard can be meditative and calming. Expressing feelings helps to give meaning to life, which is helpful for us all!
Personally, I have found writing to be very therapeutic during tumultuous periods in my life. Writing my own recent memoir/self-help book, “Healing with Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey,” proved to me that in times of depression, it is very helpful to try to be creative. Pick up a notebook and just start writing!
If you haven’t tried this before, here are ten things to keep in mind:
1. Find a quiet, uninterrupted time and place to write.
2. Choose an inspiring notebook and pen.
3. Create a centering ritual (light a candle, meditate, play music, stretch).
4. Breathe deeply.
5. Put aside your inner critic.
6. Date your entry.
7. Begin by writing your feelings and sensations.
8. Write nonstop for 15-20 minutes.
9. Save what you have written.
10. Write regularly.
Diana Raab is a author of eight books and teaches in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and in various conferences around the country. She frequently writes and speaks about journaling and her most recent memoir is Healing With Words: A Writer’s Breast Cancer Journey (June 2010).