Depression & the creative process

I was recently chatting with a psychiatrist about the creative process, specifically among poets. He admitted that he doesn’t know much about poetry, but I was nevertheless surprised to learn that he believed the stereotype of the poet who works most creatively when depressed.

“You deal with depressed people all the time,” I said. “Do they strike you as particularly motivated to do anything creative?”

He admitted that one hallmark of depression is loss of motivation–to do anything, let alone create expressive art of any kind. So it would follow, I suggested, that a period in which a person is seriously working at what he or she loves would be unlikely to coincide with a full-blown depressive episode.

“What about those poets who write about, say, staring out a window and sadness,” he asked, “They seem to write about being depressed, to express the feelings of depression.”

True, some poets experience depression (some commit suicide, too); and some express those feelings in verse. Yet none of the working writers I know who struggle with forms of depression write while in the midst of the “black mood.” They can only write well when the mood has not seized them fully; and while they may try to convey those feelings of the ‘inexpressible,’ they write and especially, revise, the work during more productive hours when melancholia has tapered a bit.

Melencolia_I_(Durero)

Drurer’s Melencolia I (wiki images)

It takes concentration, creativity, and analysis to craft a poem that adequately means what depression feels like. You cannot access such things when you are truly depressed. Some writers want to portray the experience; others want to explain it; still others prefer to write about the desire to escape, or even to embrace, the melancholy; others simply relate what they observe. Trying to pigeonhole all writers who address despair defies reason and suggests that all writers undergo the same feelings and experiences. Excuse me, we are individuals–diversely, wildly, enthusiastically unique.

That said, I cannot make the claim that no one has ever created a great work of art or poem while in the midst of a clinical depression; I merely posit that it’s likely that poetry composed while the author is gripped by existential melancholy will not meet the poet’s own standards.

Lewis Wolpert, a biologist and author, says, “I claim that if you can truly describe what it is like, then you have not had a true depression. It’s an illusion, and completely unlike anything else. When you are immersed in it, you enter a world without reference points, so once you recover it is very hard to relate how you felt.”

A world without reference points–that is the attraction depression might hold for a writer: the creative summons to relate an experience that is essentially beyond description. But most writers are not able to answer that summons while in the depths themselves.

And many writers are not troubled by depression at all. [See this 2012 article from the UK's Mental Health Foundation for essential insight and clarification of an earlier study--that abstract is here.] The studies do suggest that writers are more likely than the general population to have bipolar disorder, which makes a kind of sense to me: after the sinkhole of a depressive period, the active “manic” phase might permit a writer to accomplish a great deal, including possibly a description of the void. Or it might not.

At any rate, I hope that people–psychiatrists, for example!–eventually recognize that we should not stereotype artists and poets any more than we should stereotype people who have mental illnesses, different accents, or skin color that is dissimilar to our own. What makes artists “different from other people” remains a mystery despite years of research and speculation, and my gut feeling is that the difference has more to do with other aspects of the creative process than it does with depression of any stripe.

10 comments on “Depression & the creative process

  1. Interesting post, Ann. I’m wondering whether what you object to in the psychiatrist’s correlation of depression and creativity might be semantic. Maybe if he used the term “melancholy” you’d be more inclined to agree? There does seem to be some correlation there. I’ve read accounts suggesting that being visual and right-brained–and apparently poetry is considered more right-brained than other forms of writing–is related to being inward and prone to melancholy. And certainly a lot of art takes as its genesis some sort of unhappiness, or loneliness, or struggle. I’ve recently been reading Dante’s Vita Nuova, and if it weren’t for his mad, visionary, heart-breaking, and mostly unhappy love for Beatrice, we wouldn’t have those poems.

    • Well, Lynne–he’s a psychiatrist: he knows what depression is! So I’m thinking the difference is not semantic but an odd kind of ignorance.

      I agree with you, though, that melancholy and unhappiness do provide starting-points for many works of art (poetry, music, dance, painting…). There’s a yearning in melancholy, however, that is absent in clinical depression. Yearning is a form of action.

    • moishmoish says:

      The mere action of writing a poem is, by definition, an action against hopelessness. It’s saying not only that you’ve found something of meaning, but that you even believe there is a value in writing it down. What could be a less depressive act than that?
      But I would say, as one who’s been depressed, the depressions are one of the things that fuel my need to write. It also gives me great satisfaction that I managed to to salvage or create something beautiful out of the sadness.

      • Composing anything, as an imaginative act, does seem to me to be an action in the world, hence, I suppose, against hopelessness. I also agree with Sigrun that “writing can be a tool to keep depression at a bearable distance.” Because even when the expression in words/art is intimate and personal, the very act of somehow stepping back just enough to compose a poem–or whatever–buffers the depression.

        I think there are people who write “out of” depression, but depression itself is inactive, stale, stuck. To salvage something from that is indeed marvelous.

  2. ywwp says:

    It happens that sometime in life we all go into a kind of depression, and experience different things and often discover something different. Others see it as creative.
    It is not just for poetry, but anything that needs creativity – may be research, art, music etc.

  3. Rachel Bowman says:

    One of my favorite poems is an ode to “The Spleen” by Anne Finch (1661-1720). It’s a kind of catalogue of all the effects of the “spleen,” their word for melancholy or depression. It’s been included in at least a couple of treatises on spleen/depression, one in the eighteenth century and one from the 1960s. I’m working on a critical edition of Anne Finch (working for the editor), and I’ve read it dozens of times, collating different versions. Somehow every time I read it, it gets better. Different things stand out. Here’s one couplet, for example, which I think is just so satisfyingly perfect. It’s about people who attempt to drown their “spleen” in wine; they try to “Snatch from thy shades one gay and smiling hour / And drown thy kingdom in a purple show’r.” Anyway, Finch writes that the spleen inhibits her ability to write (“my crampt numbers fail”).

    Here’s a link to the poem if you want to read it: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/180919

    As for me, I think I tend to feel more creative when I’m dissatisfied, or restless, or full of pent-up momentum–not in despair, not totally content.

    • I’m familiar with the poem. And also with Finch, so I’m interested in your project–let me know when the book is in print!

      Checking around the interwebs for research on depression and writing, I’ve found a number of anecdotes such as interviews with authors who have experienced clinical depression (I’ve also read several books by authors on this topic–Styron’s memoir is most cited, but there are others). Sorrow, grief, dissatisfaction, restlessness, anger and other “negative” emotional states can definitely act as fuel for inspiration; those seem to me to be different altogether from the disassociated, numb event of clinical depression.

      In one article, six authors with clinical depression were asked if it was ever helpful to the writing. Two said yes (one with qualifications: yes, in that depression offered a kind of change in perspective that could be useful). Four gave definitive “no” answers. Not one of them was able to compose creative work while experiencing the depression. Like Finch, the “spleen” cramps the muse.

  4. Dave Bonta says:

    I think the only thing that makes writers different from other people is that they write. That’s it. I don’t think there’s one type of temperament that makes for the best writer, or even one type of intelligence. (And as the success of someone like Christian Bok demonstrates, poetry would be healthier and more diverse if we could get more people with highly analytical minds interested in it.)

    • I agree with you, Dave, which is why I feel irritated that educated analytical people are as likely as the average person to pigeon-hole poets/artists as “mentally unstable.” I spend a great deal of time correcting the view that poets are necessarily depressed people who wear berets & live in garrets…

  5. Sigrun says:

    What about the mental health of mental health professionals? Are they more or less depressed than the rest of us?

    If I can add some non-objective personal guessing on depression and creativity I would say:
    1) Some writers are very much in touch with their own inner life, and therefore more aware on their own mood swings, and maybe also better to put adequate words to feelings. (This could explain why many readers recognize their own emotions in poetry, i.e. I can find myself in the words of another)
    2) I think also that for some of us, writing can be a tool to keep depression at a bearable distance (this would be melancholy in aesthetic sense, but not by clinical definition). When the distance diminish, we become ill, unproductive, depressed.

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