Observations on the Relationship Between Creativity and Depression

17 09 2014

I have been working on a new novel. It’s about a woman who is a failure at nearly everything she has ever put her hand to, and how her life unravels as she comes to realize it is all her own fault. Perhaps I’ll call it “Depressive Ruination.”

My writing friends can relate to the condition: Every waking moment when you aren’t focused on something else, your mind creeps back to the story. You work out dialogue in your head, wrestle with the plot, playing out different scenarios. “What if this happened, instead of that? What if the hero is actually the villain pretending to be a good guy? What if the woman doesn’t know who to trust?” Your entire life, even sometimes your dreams, become a source of possible material. Suddenly something dawns on you — why of course! It was actually his brother, but the family was so ashamed of their hidden secret that no one ever told! Back you go to rewrite some more. Your family and friends regard you with gentle amusement (and sometimes poorly concealed irritation) at your obsession with your story.

Then finally it’s reached first draft form, ready for the beta readers and editors. You groan and realize they’re right, this part is crap, that part has to go, and it couldn’t have been the brother anyway because of what Aunt Susan did. So you go back and work on it some more. It gets to be exhausting after awhile, you are so sick of reworking the same thing over and over again, but you’ve got a deadline, your publisher is waiting, so you focus on it again, playing and replaying the scenes until they are perfect, everything works out precisely right, and off the puppy goes. You’re ready to move on to the next exercise in literary OCD.

Now there’s this new novel. Except it’s based on real life. Well, aren’t they all? I mean, the more truth you can work into your fiction, the more it resonates with the experiences of real life, the more the reader will be able to relate to it. But this new novel isn’t fun. I’m not enjoying it at all. And my friends and family are not regarding me with gentle amusement or ever irritation. They are regarding me with genuine alarm.

It started when my marriage began to fall apart. Never mind the details. It’s the process that counts. When the problems started, a lifetime of training kicked into action. My creative and analytical faculties went into overdrive.

Every waking moment when I’m not focused on something else, my mind creeps back to the problem. I go over dialogue in my head, real and projected, possible conversations and possible answers. I wrestle with the plot, playing out different scenarios. “What if this happened, instead of that? What if the hero is actually the villain pretending to be a good guy? What if the woman doesn’t know who to trust?” My entire life has becomes a source of possible material. Suddenly something dawns on me — why of course! That is why my sister hated me. It was all my fault. And, that’s what I did wrong with my cousin, and why she won’t forgive me. I’ve been so clueless all along. So stupid. So much lost and wasted because I said or did the wrong thing.

Now it’s on to couples counseling, where I get feedback on the story I’ve woven around this problem. More reasons I’ve failed. More things I’ve done wrong. I try to pitch variations to the plot that cast me in a gentler light, or that direct at least some of the blame elsewhere. But talking about all the possibilities just confuses me. I’m not sure what’s real anymore, who said what, what they meant by it, whether I’m remembering right or just making up something plausible. There are clear, unresolvable conflicts between his version and my version. Am I wrong? I must be wrong. Look how I’ve screwed up the rest of my life.

I am so exhausted from reworking the same thing over and over again, but I’ve got a deadline, my husband and counselor are waiting, and my god, this is my life, my marriage on the line here! It is critically important that I figure this out and come up with a solution! So I focus on it more, playing and replaying the scenes but they never work out perfectly, nothing is precisely right, and there’s no end to it. The novel is a failure, I am a failure, but I can’t let go of it. I have to try harder; I must fix it somehow.

Depressive rumination is the dark side of what creative people do, especially when we are in the habit of applying obsessive compulsive analysis to our creative process. And you don’t need to be a writer to suffer from it. You just need to let the nasty, needling questions and problems of depressive thought get lodged in your head, as if they were issues you could resolve if you just tried hard enough. Your mind becomes like a computer devoting more and more of its memory and computing capacity to an unsolvable problem. Eventually the computer crashes. So does the mind.

Major Depressive Disorder — Clinical Depression — is essentially when you’ve bricked your brain. Can’t get it to reboot. Just keeps running this circular program designated by a faint, pulsing blue capital “L” followed by, “Why bother?” Data analysis repeats: Failure. Catastrophic error. Object unlovable, incompetent, fatal flaws in program too numerous to correct. Complete shut down recommended.

Curl up in bed and cry.

This is not headline news. The American Journal of Psychiatry, VOL. 144, No. 10 published a paper essentially stating that “…writers had a substantially higher rate of mental illness, predominantly affective disorder, with a tendency toward the bipolar subtype.” Simon Kyaga led a team of researchers at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, using a registry of psychiatric patients, tracked nearly 1.2 million Swedes and their relatives. The patients demonstrated conditions ranging from schizophrenia and depression to ADHD and anxiety syndromes.They found that people working in creative fields, including dancers, photographers and authors, were 8% more likely to live with bipolar disorder. Writers were a staggering 121% more likely to suffer from the condition, and nearly 50% more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

And here I am with my first-hand account of a classic co-evolutionary conundrum, like sickle cell hemoglobin conferring a survival advantage against malaria. The very characteristic that enables the subject to write imaginative, complex and internally consistent novels also makes the subject especially prone to crippling depression.

So, what am I going to do with this poisonous novel I’ve written? Fortunately, my beta reader and editor have both agreed that maybe I ought to stop working on it for a while. No more counseling sessions. That’s a start. Now some distance from the project, break the ruminative cycle, remind myself that it is, indeed fiction. Bad fiction. Fiction that ought to be taken, page by page, and ripped into tiny bits.

Sometimes you have to kill your little darlings before they kill you.




One response

24 09 2014

Maybe you can cut out a bit of the novel into a bite-sized short story or flash fiction scene for depressive ruination. So as not to waste all that angst.

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