Writers and depression

If believed, statistics cited in “Manic-Depressive Illness and Creativity,” an article from the January, 1995 issue of Scientific American, establish that the incidence of clinical depression among writers and artists may be as much as ten times greater than in the general population.

Many of the writers whose work attracts me have struggled with depression at some point in their lives. One of them, Jerzy Kosinski (an early favorite whose work I haven’t revisited since becoming aware of The Painted Bird scandal), killed himself by tying a plastic bag over his head and lying down in his bathtub.

My favorite Emily Dickinson poems evoke the sort of depression that comes on suddenly and renders impossible the smallest tasks of life:

The Brain, within its Groove
Runs evenly — and true —
But let a Splinter swerve —
‘Twere easier for You —

To put a Current back —
When Floods have slit the Hills —
And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves —
And trodden out the Mills —

A profile of Graham Greene in Contemporary Authors says Greene “recorded, almost bragged about, his life-long attempt to escape depression and boredom, starting with Russian roulette as a teenager and culminating in a career as a restless, wandering novelist who, when his mainstay got boring, tried to escape by shifting genres.” Perhaps it was Greene’s melancholy perspective that made possible his characters’ finely tuned observations about the human condition. Take this one, for example:

Sometimes I think that the search for suffering and the remembrance of suffering are the only means we have to put ourselves in touch with the whole human condition. –Dr. Colin, A Burnt-Out Case

Whether or not depression enabled his insights into human suffering, Greene clearly puzzled over the ways “all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.” (Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 15: British Novelists, 1930-1959.)

Spalding Gray’s likely suicide is sure to inspire a new examination of the alleged link between melancholia and creativity. Rebecca Caldwell kicked things off in the weekend’s Globe & Mail with an article entitled “To be or not to be? That is the cliche“:

Certainly [Gray] is but one in a lengthy scroll of authors who have suffered from depression and other mental-health problems, including T. S. Eliot, Tennessee Williams, Herman Hesse, Charles Dickens and Emily Dickinson, to name a very few. And some, such as Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, did eventually take their own lives. Apart from their works, their legacy has forged an apparent literary tradition that writers must suffer for their art, making depression almost as much of a cliche for writers as spectacles, all-black outfits and Underwood typewriters.

As Kay Jamison, an American psychiatrist who has admitted to battling her own depressive episodes, writes in her book Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and The Artistic Temperament, “A possible link between madness and genius is one of the oldest and most persistent of cultural notions.” She notes that everyone from Aristotle to Byron to Lionel Trilling had made a link between melancholy and talent in the arts.

This image of the mad genius may not just be a case of poetic licence. Jamison cites one famous study, completed by Dr. Nancy Andreasen, that looked at writers attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It suggests that writers are almost three times more likely than the general population to meet the diagnosis for a mood disorder. Her own combined review of case studies suggests that artists exhibit 18 times the suicide rate, eight-to-10 times the rate of major depressive illness, and between 10 and 40 times the rate of manic-depressive illness than that of the public.

There is no understanding, however, whether writers get depressed because of the stress of the writer’s life, or if people prone to depression are simply more likely to become writers….

A talented writer friend grows impatient with musings about writers and mental illness. She feels, if I understand her correctly, that when links are drawn between madness and creativity the writerly efforts of well-adjusted people like herself are trivialized.

She makes an excellent point. Still, I and my more melancholy friends take comfort in these kinds of linkages, however facile. They convince us that, despite our sadness and our sometimes overwhelming sense of neither belonging nor wanting to belong, our creative efforts are not necessarily for naught.


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