What to make of Health.com’s recent assertion that writers and artists are fourth most likely to be depressed? Beyond the typical ephemera found on Twitter (their depressed cuz they suck! LOL FTW! getarealjob), there isn’t new ground to tread here. One could burrow into the oft-discussed link between creativity and madnessâ€”as if one is a conduit to the otherâ€”and trot out literary greats who suffered under, and were done in by, the weight of their geniuses. I’m no literary genius, but I am creative and I did receive treatment for depression years ago. No connection. My work didn’t improve under the spell of depression (on the contrary, the quality bottomed as the quantity increased).
I should say that being creative, and wanting to find the precise way to express something important to you (or me), can exacerbate a preexisting bout of depression. Likewise, being unproductive can have the same effect; the depressive writer is left with little choice but to proceed, to truck through the bog, and hope for something a little less damning on the other side of the gloamâ€”an acceptance letter, perhaps, or a good night’s sleep.
I like to think I’ve given up on my quest to explain, with the few literary powers in my hands and brain, the crippling effects of depression; there are a few understanding souls, with the rest of the masses convinced depression is a there-there outcry from the patient, a bluesy day draped in gray sweatpants, a moist face plopped in front of a black and white movie, a disaffected scowl hooded and wedged between headphones, Fiona Apple or Nina Simone piped into ears. Yet, here I am again: champion of the depressed, an unreliable narrator committed to the ideal that depression, like all aspects of humanity, of frail bodies, of hormone floods in between gray matter gaps, can be translated. I’m failing again. I think.
When I entered therapy in 2006, I promised myself that Iâ€™d refrain from becoming a zealot or evangelist for depression, in the vein of those who lose three pounds and tell you the ills of your double bacon cheeseburger. Who wants to hear that shitâ€”my shit? And sometimes, the writer must shelf his writerly tactics, his thrill for poetic license, and describe the thing in plain language. Literary trickery is a red flag to the trained reader; her eye slices through metaphor and double entendre, asking the question at some point in the essay or memoir (or, if truly crafty, the short story)â€”what exactly is he trying to say? Whatâ€™s at stake here?
Such questions arise when the writer appears noncommittal, or ambivalent, toward the subject matter. The reader knows a faker when she sees one. In that case, I should understand why all my writings concerning my depression comes off flat; I fail to make the reader care, leaving me to wonder if I too am unswayed by my own would-be tearjerkers and blues.
If Iâ€™m right, then I also understandâ€”finallyâ€”the power of my favorite memoirs. The subject matter must be more than personal, life-altering and, in some cases, tragic; the material must matter in some intrinsic way to the writer. So while depression is an ongoing battle for me, Iâ€™m divorced from the subject as a source of literary soil. It hurts, yes, and pain in of itself may move the feverish pen within the confines of a diary, but not enough for me to craft a half-decent piece of literature.
Thereâ€™s liberation in this realization: not every bruise requires a poem, not every disease begs for a memoir. Everybody hurts, so goes the song, in varying degrees and for different reasons; I can attest to the cathartic effect of probing oneâ€™s pain, whether through prayer or conversation with friends or private writings. But writing literature is another matter. Focusing on the pain, or viewing the world through its murky prism, causes myopia.
The beautiful, the fantastic, the miraculousâ€”shit, the mundaneâ€”is missed. I thought I was writing the same story for three years, no matter the changes in main characters, settings or points in time; I kept dumping in the same sad material, whether in my fiction or my memoirs, and I was numb inside when I re-read the work. I aimed for more than a numb feeling when I wrote the pieces, no doubt. If the work failed to move meâ€”what did I expect it to do to you? Time to move on, I suppose, and return to the world.